9 Oh Sh%# Literacy Mistakes We’re Making

On a recent Teaching Literacy podcast, Dr. Evan Ortlieb discussed his work with determining what topics are most talked about in literacy right now, as well as what is not getting the attention it deserves.  It will come to no surprise to anyone that the majority of topics that were most talked about in the past year were all related to phonics, science of reading, and structured literacy.  But he also talked about what educators are starting to realize need to be prioritized but are currently not getting very much attention.  Things that would be big mistakes to make when it comes to literacy instruction.  

One of the biggies?  Comprehension.

There is some talk about comprehension out there.  It’s mostly around whether or not comprehension strategy instruction is important (it is).  I’ll come back to this in a minute.  

The podcast was all about the What’s Hot in Literacy survey, which comes out at the end of every year.  To be clear, the term “hot” means nothing more than the fact that it’s getting a lot of attention.  Dr. Ortlieb says that this doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong, it’s just a commonly brought up thing in education.  After the survey comes in and the “what’s hot” list is summarized, there’s a second part:  the What Should be Hot list.  This is the list of topics that teachers who took the survey said they wish would be getting more attention.

Which inspired me to come up with a list of my own–a list of literacy topics that, if we’re not very careful, are going to have big ramifications for kids.  A list of What We’re Soon Going to Say Uh-oh About

An Oh, Shit list, if you will. 

So, in no particular order, here are the things I think we need to be very careful with when it comes to literacy:

#1: Not maintaining independent reading time.  Somehow, the term independent reading seems to have gotten terribly misunderstood.  Independent reading time is not a free for all.  Book selection during this time is supported,  intentional, and guided depending on student need.  While kids independently read, they are able to apply all of the phonics, fluency, and comprehension skills we’ve worked so hard to teach.  They need this time to consolidate these skills!  

#2: Not maintaining independent writing time.  Again, this is absolutely not a free for all.  It’s supported and intentional.  Nothing supports reading quite like writing, which there is ample evidence to support, as Tim Shanahan explains in one of his recent blog posts.  I do not mean completing a written task, either, which many of the boxed curriculums out there today include.  I mean real, authentic writing, where we show kids how to to move through the writing process with more and more independence.  If we’re teaching both foundational skills (like sentence expansion and grammar) and important things like elaboration, organization, revision, and voice, again kids must have ample opportunity to consolidate these skills.

#3: Keeping kids away from authentic text for far too long.  The push right now is to do all the big comprehension work through read alouds for K-2 students.  Read alouds–especially interactive read alouds–are absolutely a powerhouse of a teaching tool, and a necessary model for students.  But if the discussion is always guided, and when the hard work of decoding, reading with fluency, and monitoring for comprehension are all done by the adult in the room–inside the adult’s head–for 3 years, we cannot expect to then hand a 3rd grader a book “on grade level” and think they’re going to be able to apply it all immediately. 

Listening comprehension is always much higher than our own, in-the-head comprehension.  Kids need to grapple with places that don’t make sense and have the tools to know what to do when something needs fixing up.  They need to learn, in a developmentally appropriate way, how to ensure the words they’re saying make sense while also carefully attending to the text to understand how to read with all aspects of fluency.  They need to learn how to make a mental image while doing all this work.  To transact with the text.  To accumulate information across pages and chapters.  They need to suss out what’s key and what’s not. 

Doing all the heavy lifting for kids for K-2 and then handing them texts to read all on their own and expect success is like having student drivers only engage in simulations before handing them the keys to go out and drive on the highway, at night, in the rain.  

#4: Focusing too heavily on whole group phonics.  For sure phonics is super important, and for sure it needs to be taught with intention.  But phonics should be driven by assessment, and it needs to be differentiated.  The move to long stretches of time spent on phonics is going to result in three things:  spending a lot of time on things many kids don’t even need (for our proficient readers and writers), missing the mark on things some kids might need (working ahead of what some of our most struggling readers truly need), and take away time needed for other important components of literacy instruction.  The Reading League, the organization leading the charge in pushing for whole group phonics, is sounding an alarm about this, saying that states need to “elevate the importance of other facets of evidence-based reading instruction in its messaging.”

#5: Relying on computer programs to assess our readers and writers.  By nature, only certain surface things can be assessed in this way, as Erik Francis from Solution Tree explains beautifully on a recent Teachers on Fire podcast.  A computer could never see the way a child’s eyes move through text, notice that their nose scrunches up when they’re confused, indicating self-monitoring, or take note of the attempts a child makes to work through words (it will only capture the final result).  And it will certainly not capture a child’s attitudes toward reading.  Same with writing.  Again, a computer can only score a finished result.  Not all the work that went into it, especially if kids aren’t yet typing fluently.

Bored student taking a test on the computer.
Image from Alebloshka via Depositphotos

#6: Allowing a boxed curriculum to replace us.  Companies have put in everything from daily slides to assessments to the literal script to say.  They’ve even taken many of the very same read alouds you probably already have on your shelf, and told you where to stop, what to ask, and how kids should respond.  While these boxed kits might be very easy for a teacher to use, there’s really no need then for an actual teacher with expertise. 

Assuming that the curriculum writers know what your students need, and at exactly what pace, and in exactly what order, is a big mistake.  How can your students need exactly the same things in the same ways that the students in school B, C, D–all the way to Z–need?  They don’t.  That’s why there’s an art and a science to teaching.  It’s why there never has been a perfect curriculum and there never ever will be.  

#7: Keeping reading, writing, and content siloed.  Reading and writing go together beautifully and naturally.  When taught together–not side by side but actually together–the connection between the two is made much clearer for kids, and is a tremendous time saver for teachers!  Content–especially social studies and science–also fit beautifully together with reading and writing.  They all support each other.  In a time when there’s absolutely no extra time, integrating these areas is the only solution.

#8: Ignoring AI or setting up stringent rules and roadblocks around it.  There’s no question kids will use it.  And it’s evolving so fast, we’re never going to keep up with it.  But just like the advent of the smartphone, it’s here to stay.   It’s a fantastic productivity tool, and one everyone will be wise to use.  We need to teach kids not only how to use it as a tool, but more importantly,  how to approach it in ethical ways.  The more we make it taboo, the more kids will want to use it.  If we don’t equip them with smart ways to use it, it’s bound to go south.

#9: Too much screen time.  Study after study has shown us that reading on screens negatively impacts comprehension.  If our goal is exactly the opposite, we must pay attention to these findings.  And, remembering the dark days of 2020, we cannot forget how isolating this is.  We need to come back to true conversation and collaboration in our classrooms.  

There are no doubt many more that could be said.  For me, though, these are the ones that make me the most worried.  I’d love to hear what more you’d add to this list. Send me a DM on Instagram, let me know in the Facebook group, or shoot me an email to share your thoughts!

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