Literacy: What Comes To Mind?

By Teresa Brown

What comes to mind when you think of literacy?

Most dictionaries use “the ability to read and write” to define literacy.  As I’ve grown in my instructional practice working with gifted learners and learners with challenges, literacy has come to mean much more.  My own working definition is this: 

Literacy is the ability to learn using multiple modalities and communicate in a variety of ways so that one’s ideas are understood by an audience.

Our staff participated in a book study a few years ago to help improve our literacy instruction in all subject areas and determine common agreements about our work with students.  We used Mike Schmoker’s Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning as the springboard for our work. He identifies four critical instructional components which teachers should consider as they develop learning opportunities:

  • Reading
  • Writing 
  • Discussion
  • Movement

I’ve found that these are a great foundation for literacy instruction that reaches beyond simply reading and writing and integrates the idea of social-emotional skill development as well. When I coach teachers, we talk about intentionality in integrating all four components into each class period, regardless of the level being taught. 

Screen Shot 2019-10-29 at 8.10.32 AM
Courtesy of Tim Mossholder @Unsplash

Cooperative Learning Opportunities

Use learning opportunities in your classroom that require students to read, write, discuss, and move with intention to build their capacity in interpersonal skills they’ll need as they grow. Here’s an example: 

Provide a reading task before beginning and ask students to quietly develop some ideas around it.  Group students in a way that makes sense (assigned groups, number off, etc.) for your group. Have students move to each posted open-ended question and discuss their ideas with their small group, jotting down responses to the questions about the reading using complete sentences, moving from question to question after a specified period of time. Have a member of each group share out what is jotted down on their page. Then discuss as a class or use the jotted notes to create a class-created written response. 

This can be used in all subject areas and can be modified for younger learners as well as older learners by changing the reading task, the response format, or the discussion framework itself.  Using structures such as a jigsaw, variations on pair-share, stand up-hand up-pair up, structured research, and other cooperative learning opportunities are intentional ways to get students to read, write, discuss, and move in every lesson, every class period.  

Explicit Listening and Speaking Instruction

This is an area we often forget requires specific instruction, assuming students have figured out how to listen to learn, can talk with one another, and speak on a topic.  

PPIRA hosted a literacy conference in Colorado Springs a few years ago where Erik Palmer, author of several books on speaking and listening instruction and digital literacy (, was one of the speakers. His session set off a string of instructional ideas that a colleague and I implemented the week after the conference. 

We began to embed explicit instruction in speaking and listening skills throughout the day using distributed practice. We saw wonderful growth in our students’ ability to communicate with one another and present their ideas to an audience as the year progressed. Our intentional instruction impacted student writing too, for when we gave students the opportunity to orally write before drafting, their ideas became more fully formed after receiving specific feedback from their peers on their initial ideas. 

We encouraged specials teachers to teach speaking and listening skills explicitly in their classes as well while students were presenting their music or dramatic compositions, reflecting on their art pieces, providing post-game commentary in PE, and discussing language-based learning experiences. Our experiment showed that speaking and listening skills are critical to literacy across the board.

Common Agreements

Develop common agreements among your staff or even just your teaching team about how you will incorporate literacy instruction in every class, every day using common vocabulary and strategies.  Determine specifics around reading, writing, discussion, and movement. Discuss how you’ll incorporate specific speaking and listening instruction and what social-emotional needs could be addressed.  This intentional planning will enhance learning for the students you serve.

The bottom line is this: Literacy is about learning how to gather needed information and communicating information to others. Providing intentional opportunities for students to connect to their learning while practicing literacy skills makes for richer learning experiences that they will transfer to other areas of their lives as they grow.

Teresa Brown is the Dean of Student Support and Director of the Center for Gifted Resources at Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning, a K-8 public charter school in Colorado Springs, Colorado with a focus on gifted education.  She has presented on topics related to supporting gifted learners in the classroom for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, CCIRA, and at Denver Comic Con.  Teresa also serves as an officer in PPIRA. She practices self-care by fly fishing, practicing yoga, and listening to a variety of podcasts and audio books.

Author: CCIRAblog

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