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A Handbook of Effective Instruction in Literacy: Introduction

Timothy Rasinski and Nancy Padak Kent State University
Effective Instruction in Literacy
March, 1995

In the final analysis literacy education programs are only effective to the extent that they promote positive and enduring learning among participants. One of the main learning objectives of Even Start and other similar programs is the literacy developme nt of all participants. Thus, effective instruction in literacy must be a key component of quality Even Start programs.

This monograph is intended as a brief overview of effective literacy instructional practices that can be employed in nearly all phases and with all participants of Even Start programs that deal with literacy education. The primary audience for this handb ook is teachers who work with children and adults on literacy. A secondary audience, however, is parents who wish to promote literacy learning among their children. Although parents may not read this handbook firsthand, parent educators may wish to shar e appropriate information from the book with parents so that they may engage in effective literacy education activities with their children. Although we do not present comprehensive evidence of the effectiveness of these practices in this paper, the prac tices described herein have extensive documentation in instructional and classroom-based research.

The practices described here are not meant to be prescriptive; that is, we do not intend for teachers to attempt to use all or as many activities as possible. Rather, we hope that teachers will determine what they need to focus on in their instruction ba sed on informal assessments of their students and design coherent and consistent instructional "packages" that include activities designed to meet students' identified instructional needs. This handbook is meant as a resource to be used in planning instr uction, not as a plan itself.

We have divided the handbook into major sections that focus on important aspects of literacy development. The first section deals with general suggestions that are appropriate for any age level or any specific literacy need. These suggestions are applic able to you as your work with literacy learners and to parents as they attempt to foster the literacy development of their children.

General Suggestions
1. Share your own enthusiasm for reading and writing/Be a model of literate behavior.

One of the best ways to convince students that reading and writing are important and worth pursuing is to be enthusiastic about literacy and to share that enthusiasm with your students. Let students see that you are a reader and writer. Talk with studen ts extensively and authentically about what you are reading and writing about in your own life. Allow them to see you reading and writing. When a teacher is enthusiastic about a particular subject, the chances are that students themselves will also be e nthusiastic and become more deeply engaged in the subject and learn it with greater ease.

2. Read to Students.

One way to share your enthusiasm for reading and to model fluent reading for students is to read to student every day you provide instruction. Research has demonstrate that reading to students has a number of positive effects on reading: students who are read to have better comprehension and more extensive vocabularies than students not read to. In addition, reading to students is associated with successful early reading, with positive attitudes toward reading, and with greater awareness of what fluent reading is like.

Reading to students is relatively easy. However, there are a few points worth mentioning. First, be sure you share with students the very best literature and reading material available. You need to become aware of the many great books that are availab le for students, the ones that will turn students on to reading and keep them turned on. Among the best ways to learn about good books are to ask experts such as school and public librarians, read children's books extensively yourself, be aware of award- winning books, and share your knowledge with others and learn about books from your professional colleagues. When you read to students it is important to read with fluency -- remember, you are a model of what good reading is supposed to be like. Thus, b e sure to practice the text you intend to read before performing it to a group. Make sure your audience is comfortable when listening to you read -- no need for them to be stuck in an uncomfortable seat if they don't need to be there. And finally, after reading talk about the story with your audience. What do they think about the story? What did they like, dislike, find unusual or confusing?

Above all dedicate yourself to become a "seller" of reading to your students. Students cannot be enthusiastic about stories and reading unless they have been made aware of those treasures by a caring and enthusiastic teacher.

3. Make it real reading.

Growth in reading is fostered best when literacy learners are engaged in real, authentic reading activities -- read real books, magazines, articles, etc for real purposes. Unfortunately, literacy instruction is defined by some curriculum materials makers , teachers, and administrators in terms of workbooks, worksheets, oral unrehearsed round robin reading for no specific purpose, using "engineered" texts that are supposed to written at a particular level of difficulty but in reality are dreadfully boring for any level reader. Moreover, engaging in these artificial literacy tasks runs the risk of promoting the notion that reading is some mechanistic word reproduction activity that has little to do with meaning making, inquiry, and enjoyment. It is this v ery artificial approach to reading and writing education that many experts argue is the primary reason why students' attitude toward reading goes into a consistent and precipitous tailspin beginning as early as second grade.

We urge teachers of literacy and parents to always keep their instructional compass pointed toward what reading is all about: reading good stories and articles in order to satisfy the real purposes we have for reading -- to enjoy a story, to learn about s omething we have an interest in, to communicate with others, to express our feelings. These are the kinds of things that learners should be engaging in and if they do they will no doubt discover the value of literacy and make it a priority in their lives.

4. Provide time for reading/Increase students' reading.

It's really quite simple, people learn to read by reading. People who read the most tend to be our best readers. Yet, if students don't have time for reading they can't read. Some studies have shown that upper elementary grade readers read books for le ss than five minutes each day on average outside of school. We need to create time for our students to read, whether that time is at home alone or built into time set aside for actual instruction. We need to help students develop the reading habit and o ne of the best ways we know is to foster it during our time with students.

In addition to providing time for reading, we need to encourage students' reading at all times and levels. Emphasis during instruction should be taken from doing worksheets and answering questions to real reading and talking about what was read. Outside of instruction we should make every effort to encourage students to read on their own for their own purposes.

5. Provide literacy rich environments for students.

Research has found that environment for reading play an important role in students' growth in literacy. We send a subtle yet powerful message to students by the kinds of environments we create for reading and writing. Dark and barren environments suggest that literacy is neither important nor honored. Light and comfortable environments, on the other hand, with plenty of books and other reading materials on display as well as writing materials welcomes students to read and write.

6. Have high expectations for literacy learners.

When a learner believes that someone believes in them and that they can be successful, the learner is more likely to accomplish his or her objectives. Teachers and parents need to learn to believe in and have high expectations for their students and to communicate these feelings honestly, openly, enthusiastically, and often to their students and children. In one study from England, simply training parents to listen to their children read and respond to the reading with vigorous and heartfelt praise resulted in students making greater gains in reading than a comparison group of children who were receiving special and additional tutoring in reading at school.

7. Provide interesting language experiences for literacy learners.

It is important that literacy learners develop a good background for the things about which they will read.

Moreover, they need to have facility in oral language before they can master reading the written word. Thus, it is critical for parents and teachers to talk with their children and students often and in depth, and provide learners with interesting and varied experiences which can be talked and written about later during instructional time. These activities form the basis for developing the schema or background knowledge that is required for high level comprehension and for developing language skill and flexibility that is also needed for reading.

8. Connect reading and writing.

Although it may be seem obvious to most of us, many teachers still fail to make the connection in instruction between reading and writing. Reading provides writers with interesting ideas and models of good expression to use in their writing. Writing for ces readers to get inside words and ideas in ways that require greater analysis and depth than when reading. This results in deeper learning of the writing/spelling systems in our language and greater consideration and organization of one's own ideas. Good writing activities include journal writing, copy change activities in which students write their own version of exemplary pieces of writing, story writing using writers' workshop in which students work on pieces of writing over extended periods of time, and functional writing such as letters, lists, notes, etc.

9. Tap into students' interests.

Readers are more likely to read, and read successfully, those texts that are about things in which they have an interest. It behooves us as teachers and parents to learn our students' and children's interests and then help them find texts that satisfy or match those interests. Interests can be determined simply by asking and carefully observing learners. Finding books and other reading materials that match specific interests can be accomplished by asking the children's librarian at the local library or some other expert in children's literature. Providing students with material that allows them to extend their interests and that are written at the appropriate level of difficulty will help keep students' reading which, in turn, will extend their profic iency and skill in reading.

10. Establish instructional routines.

Routines are blocks of time during which certain predictable types of activities occur. To some, the word "routine" connotes boredom. Not so. The routines we describe below -- read aloud, sustained silent reading, and choice time -- are anything but.

Read Aloud. Story time is a staple in most classrooms, as well it should be. Read aloud should be an instructional routine in the classrooms. The benefits are many. Listening to a text well read is a pleasure for all of us. IN addition, students encounter new ideas, characters, situations, and places through the literature read to them. Another advantage of reading aloud, especially for those who find reading difficult, is that it familiarizes students with the style and form of written language. Finally, a special time for daily reading alouds demonstrates that reading is a worthwhile activity, important enough to include in the busy instructional schedule.

Virtually any interesting material can be read aloud -- fiction or nonfiction picture books or "chapter books", poetry, informational articles, letters, and so on. And read alouds need not be restricted to "story time".

Students can learn a great deal about the nature of reading by listening to good books, poems, articles, or other types f text read aloud. They can also experience the rewards that reading can offer.

Sustained Silent Reading. Just as time is devoted to the teacher's reading aloud every day, so too should students have daily opportunities to read material of their own choice for their own purposes. To develop feelings of comfort and success as readers, students need consistent opportunities to behave as readers -- to read. Toward this end, we recommend sustained silent reading (SSR) as another instructional routine. SSR is simply a period of time when everyone, including the teacher, reads. (Two other strategies, DEAR -- drop everything and read -- and SQUIRT -- sustained, quiet, independent reading time, follow essentially the same procedures.)

Most teachers introduce SSR to students by beginning with brief time periods (e.g. 5 minutes) so that everyone can be successful in sustaining their reading. LAter, SSR time can be extended. The only rule for SSR is that everyone reads. The SSR periods sometimes conclude with brief sharing sessions so that the students can read interesting parts of their books aloud or talk about what they have read.

Choice Time. A third block of daily time should be devoted to choice, a time when students can make their own decisions about what they wish to do as readers or writers. Choice time is fun to observe in classrooms because students are so productiv ely busy with such a variety of tasks. Some read or write alone, and others read and write together. Some share their work, and others prepare to do so.

Some teachers and students establish informal rules for choice time. They might decide to reserve certain portions of the classroom for people who need silence, for example, or establish a procedure for seeking the teacher's assistance. (In this regard, students may simply write their names in a list on the chalkboard and the teacher can work down the list in "first come - first served" fashion.) Other teachers prefer less initial regulation, opting to wait and see if problems arise and inviting students to develop solutions if they do.

Together these three routines could constitute "reading time", or teachers could develop others, such as time for whole group instruction. Either way, planning instruction in terms of routines helps teachers focus on what's important and ensures that classroom time will be well spent. Routines are helpful for students, as well, because a predictable environment allows independence. Students can get about the business of reading and writing, rather than always waiting for the teacher's directions.


Learning involves conceptual change. To teach for conceptual change, we need to establish instructional frameworks that stress relevance, involve lots of predicting and confirming, and offer consistent opportunities to talk things through with others. Of course, this takes time. But many teachers have decided that the time spent in these ways is worth it, because such accommodations allow students to use what they already know to make sense out of what's new.

We have introduced several key instructional principles in this chapter that can help you think about curriculum and instruction in your Even Start program. None of these guidelines is particularly new or revolutionary; all just make good common sense. We invite students to read, write and talk about issues that interest them. We look for ways to challenge students, to offer them opportunities to stretch and grow in an atmosphere that promotes collaboration and success. And, of course, we stand ready to support learners in their quest to grow as literate people.

Here you can download the entire 79 page handbook (228k).

This work is supported by a grant from the Ohio Department of Education, Division of Federal Assistance, comtract 062976-EV-ST-95.

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