A Literacy-Rich Environment in the Classroom

By Jan Anttila

Getting students absorbed in meaningful, purposeful literacy activities requires a number of significant changes in the classroom – in the physical environment, in the events and activities, and in the nature and quality of the interactions. – Noel Jones

By now, your classrooms are all set up, decorated and in full use by your students, and I’m sure they look wonderful. But I have a question for you. Is your classroom Literacy-Rich?  This was a question I asked many teachers during my tenure as a district literacy trainer for Douglas County Schools in Colorado. I trained hundreds of elementary and secondary teachers in  best practices in teaching literacy, called LIFT (Literacy Instructional Framework for Teaching). This program was based on the California Early Literacy Learning program (CELL).

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One of the most important components of LIFT was ensuring that all teachers, but especially those in elementary schools and teaching secondary Language Arts, had a “literacy-rich environment” in their classroom.  Dr. Kimberly Tyson defines this environment as: “a setting that encourages and supports speaking, listening, reading, and writing in a variety of authentic ways – through print & digital media”. During our LIFT training, we focused on the following components of the environment: classroom design and materials, and reading and writing through authentic activities.

Classroom Materials: The Classroom Library

Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 8.06.41 AMAt our training sessions, I began by asking our teachers these questions:  Is the classroom library inviting? Does it  provide a range of quality books and other types of text at all appropriate levels?  How is it organized? When creating their libraries, teachers need to take a cue from public libraries and bookstores where books are facing out to entice readers and comfortable seating is available for readers. Teachers can use many methods to organize, such as using bins/baskets separated by popular authors, topics, genre, etc. However, I don’t recommend  “leveling” the classroom librar

y. Fountas and Pinnell agree: “It is our belief that levels have no place in classroom libraries, in school libraries, in public libraries, or on report cards.” Students need to be able to choose books based on interest and favorite authors or genres, just as they do at the public library. Leveled books can be used in guided reading, and the teacher can certainly suggest certain books that would be appropriate for kids, but ultimately they must have choice in selecting books from the library.

Classroom Design: Words All Over the Place!

“A print-rich environment is one in which “children interact with many forms of print, including signs, labeled centers, wall stories, word displays, labeled murals, bulletin boards, charts, poems, and other printed materials” (Kadlic and Lesiak, 2003).

What goes on your classroom walls is important as well!  All classrooms should have print on the walls that assist students with (depending on the grade level) the alphabet, sight words, phonics concepts, writing and content vocabulary.  Of course, you can buy commercial posters, make some online, or print on chart paper. But more ownership comes when these materials are created with the help of the students through Interactive Writing (sometimes also called Shared Writing). When a teacher and students create text together, students are more likely to use it in their literacy activities.

Word Walls are another crucial element of a literacy-rich classroom and help student remember words they will see in their reading and use in their writing. In addition, they help students strengthen their vocabulary.  There are so many ways to create word walls: the traditional one on the classroom wall, personal word walls, or digital word walls. Content area classrooms in secondary schools have them, too, as well as art, music, and PE teachers.

Classroom Layout

“The room arrangement should encourage repeated opportunities to interact with literacy materials and activities to practice skills that students are learning.” (Gunn, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995)

Another question teachers need to ask themselves is:  Does the room arrangement support all literacy activities of the instructional framework? How your room is set-up can affect how successful your literacy activities are!  What area will allow for a large enough classroom library, where students can both read and browse for books? Where will print be hung so that students can see it clearly and use as a reference? Most importantly, where is your whole class meeting area?  This is something that I never had in my 90’s intermediate classroom. But in my classroom visits, I saw the power of this space, not only in primary classrooms but also in intermediate! These areas are used for read-aloud, shared reading, interactive writing, interactive editing and mini-lessons. And of course, they can be used for class meetings as well.  An area for your small group instruction work is also important.

Authentic Literacy

Children who are successful at becoming literate view reading and writing as authentic activities from which they get information and pleasure, and by which they communicate with others. – Richard Allington, Classrooms That Work

Finally, a literacy-rich environment needs to include authentic literacy activities, not ones created by publishing companies (disclaimer: nothing wrong with using these occasionally, but authentic activities create better readers and writers!). NWEA states that: “Authentic learning occurs when activities or projects offer students an opportunity to directly apply their knowledge or skills to real-world situations.”  In an ASCD blog, Amber Teamann writes “George Couros has shared that when students are creating for their teacher it only has to be good enough, but when they are creating for the world, it has to be GREAT”.

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So what are examples of authentic literacy activities?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Daily class news taken home to parents
  • “Text messages” between novel characters (I used http://ios.foxsash.com/)
  • Actual text messages from students to the teacher or a parent using new vocabulary words
  • Thank you notes to classmates, teachers, school staff and parents
  • Novel character “Fakebook” page using Classtools.net, or this Google Doc template
  • Novel character Instagram post
  • Student submissions to classroom or school newsletter
  • Interactive Writing to use as a resource for students
  • Book reviews posted online
  • Letters to government officials about community issues or letters to editor of local paper
  • Letters to authors of books students read
  • Biographies of family members/family history stories
  • Information brochures or letters to next year’s students and their parents
  • Tweeting on classroom Twitter account or posts on classroom Instagram account
  • Student written blog for parents on classroom activities and learning (Kidblog is great!

Our students definitely need teachers trained in all aspects of literacy. But teachers also need to be “interior literacy decorators” who strive to make their classroom literacy-rich. By ensuring that all classrooms have daily opportunities for authentic activities, easy access to a wide range of books and text, print displays and literacy learning centers and areas, our students will become literate citizens of the world.

Thank you to the following teachers for allowing me to use photos of their classrooms:

  • Kelly Broecker, 5th grade, Gold Rush Elementary in Parker, CO
  • Carol McRae, 6th grade Writing, Sagewood Middle School, Parker, CO
  • Abby Schmitz, 2nd grade, Ruth Hill, Lincoln NE
  • Leslie Schlag, Preschool, Cherokee Trails Elementary, Parker, CO
  • Angela Davis, Kindergarten, Saddle Ranch Elementary, Highlands Ranch, CO


Jan Anttila recently retired from Douglas County Schools after working as a classroom teacher, teacher mentor, staff developer, literacy specialist and GT facilitator. In addition, she was a faculty practitioner at the University of Phoenix, teaching preservice teachers. Jan currently has her own business, 21st Century Tutoring and Consulting, providing services for today’s students and teachers. She also blogs about teaching and education at teachingtheteacherblog.com.  Look for Jan’s sessions at the CCIRA conference in February, 2019.


Author: CCIRAblog

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