Big Leap for Literacy: Push for In-Depth Reading Requires New Teaching Methods and Digital Tools

By DeNisco, Alison | District Administration, July 2016 | Go to article overview

Big Leap for Literacy: Push for In-Depth Reading Requires New Teaching Methods and Digital Tools


DeNisco, Alison, District Administration


Writer in the making? A student from Walker Elementary School, part of West Allis-West Milwaukee School District, is in the zone. Teachers in the district confer with each student to set individual literacy goals.

Literacy changes taking hold in schools recognize the subject's expansion beyond traditional textbooks to online readings, images and audio.

New learning standards ask students to read more closely and write more analytically, meaning teachers must adapt curriculum to get students ha reading earlier, says Jennifer Serravallo, International Literacy Association speaker and author of The Reading Strategies Book.

"The classic definition of literacy is 'the ability to read and write,"' Serravallo says. "What educators have been puzzling over is what it means to read and write today."

This spring, a middle school class in Colorado's St. Vrain Valley School District read Passenger on the Pearl, a true story of a woman's escape from slavery. Students created digital timelines, built fake Facebook pages for the characters and produced videos using iMovie to demonstrate learning and to further their own software skills. Students also Skyped with the book's author.

"It increases student engagement immediately, and supports them with 21st century skills as they are responding in authentic, real-world ways," says Kerin McClure, instructional coordinator of language arts at St. Vrain Valley.

The Common Core and other standards require districts to rework curriculum and expand literacy skills across all subjects. This includes emphasizing literacy in math, science and all other subjects.

At the International Literacy Association's annual conference this month, experts and educators will offer guidance in developing rigorous literacy instruction. Some districts have already launched innovative programs that leverage digital platforms, reading specialists, professional development and parent engagement to build literacy curricula that get results.

"Just because this generation is connected doesn't mean they have the skills, strategies and dispositions to use digital tools in a way that enhances literacy or learning," says Bernadette Dwyer, a literacy association board member and expert on digital literacy tools.

Embracing the digital shift

St. Vrain Valley Schools, a district of some 32,000 students, redesigned its curriculum to fit Colorado Academic Standards, emphasizing digital books and media.

St. Vrain's middle and high school students access the all-digital curriculum with 1-to-l devices. Each year is broken into four modules for each grade level, with three different full-length book choices within each. At the elementary and secondary level, all students focus on an "anchor" text, and teachers can also chose to break students into smaller groups to read different books.

Some K3 English language learners are placed in biliteracy classrooms, which use the same text as English-only classes, but follow unit plans with built-in Spanish support. They also use small, leveled readers on the same topics--but in Spanish. ELL students and struggling readers in English-only classrooms are provided with scaffolded support and receive additional assistance in small groups.

"We're trying to foster both student engagement and a deep passion about what they are reading, while making sure all students have access to the same high-quality instruction and texts," McClure says.

Personalized learning

Digital literacy tools also have the ability to better personalize lessons for each student, with the goal of increasing achievement for struggling learners. "We often develop curriculum for this mythical average child,' and then fix it for our other readers," Dwyer says. "Digital tools allow us to anticipate the needs of these learners from the outset, support them through customization of the learning, and build in supports like text-to-speech and dictionary supports. …

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