Literacy as the Bedrock of All Learning

Marlene Moskowitz Dodyk, Former Director of Student Services, Wayland (MA) Public Schools

Literacy skills serve as a foundation for all future learning

OverBooks in a heart-shaped bookslef the decades I have supported children in developing their literacy skills, I experienced time and again that they have an innate desire to learn to read and write. From their earliest ages, children take pleasure in turning the pages of a book and in hearing stories read to them. They live in a world saturated with language: printed, digital, verbal and nonverbal. They are inquisitive and want to find out what words mean. It is our professional responsibility to help children understand the complexities of language, to develop the requisite skills to effectively engage and interact with text and to express themselves both orally and in writing.

The development of solid literacy skills serves as the foundation upon which all future learning occurs: Children will not be able to acquire knowledge across all curriculum areas without knowing how to read and understand text. For literacy instruction to be effective, teachers must establish (a) a cycle of ongoing assessment using formative and curriculum-based measures and data to inform instruction, (b) differentiated instructional strategies and materials to specifically address the needs of individual children, and (c) calibrated approaches based on data from progress monitoring activities. It is vital to consider dosage (which includes both frequency and duration) dedicated both to direct instruction and to opportunities to practice reading and writing when establishing an effective balanced literacy program throughout the grades.

Teachers must emphasize the need for children to acquire phonemic awareness and decoding skills in the early grades; however, educators should also integrate and explicitly teach children strategies to develop reading fluency, which includes accuracy, ease, and prosody. Reading rate is often misconstrued as analogous to reading fluency; but fluency has more to do with reading comprehension. Thus, educators should focus on developing in children  a strong vocabulary, a grasp of syntax and text structure, and an expansion of background knowledge. Read Alouds—the reading aloud of age-appropriate texts in a group setting—are very effective in helping to teach and guide children in cultivating the various components of reading comprehension. These promote reading as interactive experience between the author and the reader, and are a wonderful opportunity for teachers to model good reading strategies and critical thinking skills.

Writing, a skilled process that can expand and improve throughout life, starts at a very young age. Through age-appropriate writing experiences, including journal writing, Writers Workshop and direct instruction on writing genres, structures, standard grammar and usage, children can learn to experience writing as an expression of themselves and, with practice, find their voices. Students develop the ability to clearly organize their thoughts, articulate a cogent argument with supportive details, and can creatively express their ideas and opinions. Writing then becomes a forum where students can take risks and hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Children need and can appreciate the positive power of words through the development of strong literacy skills. However, literacy instruction involves many complexities. Educators must therefore themselves become committed learners, always seeking new methods and approaches that will set the widest range of students on a solid path to becoming confident and capable readers and writers.

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