Combatting Aliteracy: Mentoring Today’s Students to Become Tomorrow’s Avid Readers

By Gravity Goldberg

According to a 2021 Pew Research study 23% of adults surveyed say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form. When we look at the surveys of school age children we see reading volume begins to drop by age 9. Only 35%  of nine year olds report reading five to seven days a week compared to 57%  percent of eight year olds (Scholastic, 2019).  These two studies and many others point to a larger issue of aliteracy in this country. 

Aliteracy refers to people who can read but choose not to. While the national narrative has focused on those who are struggling to learn to decode the words (which of course also needs to be addressed), we cannot forget this other group who have not identified as readers and do not see the value of time spent reading. 

We have likely all sat around the dinner table and teacher’s room lamenting social media and smartphones as the cause of so much aliteracy, and of course books are competing for attention with our devices. But, since smartphones are likely not going anywhere, we must look at what we can control – how we frame reading instruction, how we mentor readers, and what we can do to make sure all students graduate understanding not just how to read the words but how to use reading to make lives better. 

Photo courtesy of Pan Xiaozhen via Unsplash

We know there is always a lag between culture and curriculum. Just because something changes in our current culture does not mean we immediately see a shift in what or how we teach. The summer is a great time to reflect and make an action plan for how we can bring our curricular approach up to date. How can we make our literacy approach relevant for our students today so they also become the avid adult readers of tomorrow?

Literacy Habits of Mind

What it means to be literate is always changing given the context we are living within. In Performative Literacy: The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers, by Sheridan Blau (2003), he explains that reading is more than a set of skills. Blau lists the habits that readers must have to be highly literate which include

  • Willingness to suspend closure—to entertain problems rather than avoid them
  • Tolerance for failure—a willingness to re-read and re-read again
  • Tolerance for ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty
  • Metacognitive awareness–capacity to monitor and direct one’s own reading process

If your current approach solely focuses on reading as a set of skills, consider how and where you can integrate the dispositions needed to be highly literate too.

Critical Digital Literacy 

With access to technology and a push for more interconnectedness, being literate also includes critical digital literacy practices. Reading and writing no longer simply include a book or article you can hold in your hands. Reading has broadened to include reading a video, podcast, infographic, and photos etc.

According Hinrichsen and Coombs (2014) successful literacy learners need to engage in four roles to be critically digital literate. They need to be:

  • Code Breakers– How do I crack this text? How does it work?
  • Meaning Makers– How do the ideas represented in the text string together? What are the cultural meanings and possible readings that can be constructed from this text?
  • Text Users–How do the users of this text shape its composition? What do I do with this text, here and now?
  • Text Analysts– What is this text trying to do to me? In whose interests?

If your current approach focuses mostly on finding the  messages “in the book” consider how you can include more multimodal texts and teach students to be more critical thinkers within and beyond the texts. 

Community and Advocacy 

Youth and adults today use the power of social media to form connections and become advocates for the causes they believe in. Being literate includes an interconnectedness to a community who uses language in nuanced and purposeful ways. Readers need to understand the implicit meanings and tone as well as the perspectives that the community holds. They also need to use information to create narratives that inspire change using a variety of mediums. When students understand that reading and writing are powerful tools that allow them to impact others they begin to see their larger value.

Being a member of a literacy community means:Becoming an advocate means:
I bring my full identity with me.I curate the texts I consume.I choose the conversations I want to join.I set goals for myself.I ask for feedback.I see my role in the communities I am a part of.I know and name challenges my communities face.I use texts to understand, empathize, and problem solve.I contribute through listening, speaking, writing, and doing.

If your current approach does not explicitly set all students up to be contributors within a community, think about who and what is being centered so you can make a different set of choices.

Am I Teaching Students to Be Literate Today? 

If we are serious about combating aliteracy we need to teach students that reading is relevant right now. It can bring joy, create connection, and answer questions. Reading cannot simply be about reading levels, test scores, and standards. Students must see the value and purpose of reading within and beyond school if they grow up to be adults who choose to read.

Take some time this summer and fall to reflect in a community around the following questions and then make an action plan for how you will contextualize reading differently this school year. What follows are a few ideas to get you started. 

Reflection QuestionsAction Plan
What are the literacy habits of mind that readers will develop this year?Add literacy habits of mind into curriculum maps Model these literacy habits such as navigating ambiguity, rereading, and leaning into problems by making your own reading process more visible Confer with students regularly and ask them to share their process and habits with you
How will you support students in becoming critical consumers and producers of a variety of texts?Create digital text sets for and with studentsStudy mentor texts that include audio, video and print and discuss the norms of eachModel and coach students inVerifying the accuracy of informationUnderstanding the author’s worldview and perspectiveComparing information across sourcesSynthesizing information from multiple textsMoving between different text types and modalities 
How will the curriculum create space and mentorship for students to be contributors in their communities? Make sure students have access to texts that include positive representative of all identities and communitiesAsk for and center students’ questions that they want to studyIntegrate community-based learning into unitsModel how you use reading and writing to make your communities a better place Include more student work in data meetings that contextualize and humanize students beyond numbers

I can’t help but think of the current humanitarian, political, environmental, and health related crises we are facing. Most days I wake up overwhelmed and some days even hopeless. But then I remember I am a literacy educator and there is much I can do.  None of today’s global or local challenges can be solved without having these literacy dispositions because being literate is not only about the books in our hands, but the ways we think and act. No matter what this next school year brings, please remember, our goal is not simply to create better readers. Our goal is to help students use reading to make their worlds better. 

Dr. Gravity Goldberg is an educational consultant, author and founder of Gravity Goldberg, LLC. While based in the New York / New Jersey metro area, Gravity supports school districts across the country. She specializes in literacy, special education, curriculum, assessment, and learning with technology. Her work ranges from demonstrating lessons and leading workshops on balanced literacy to working with administrators developing curriculum and customizing professional development programs. She works in classrooms from pre-kindergarten through college and in a variety of settings, both urban and suburban. Contact her at


by Nikki Grimes, 2023 CCIRA Conference Speaker

The subject most on my mind these days is banned books.  A banned book is not the stuff of romance, nor is it a badge of courage, as some imagine.  When a book is banned, it means that your readers no longer have access to the story you have poured your heart and soul into, the story you have lived, and breathed, and likely bled over for years.  That book is no longer available to the audience you intended it for.  In other words, a banned book is not a dream, but a nightmare.

The first of my books to land on a list for removal was Ordinary Hazards, my memoir in verse. One of the primary themes of this book is the power of words on paper, most especially the power of poetry.  This is a theme that I come back to again, and again, with good reason.

I was fortunate to learn, as a child, that releasing my thoughts and feelings through poetry created space for me to breathe, and allowed me the perspective I needed to journey through childhood trauma and come out on the other side whole.  Poetry is healing, both for the writer and the reader, and it is a powerful tool to put in the hands of a young person.  I have often spoken of reading and writing as my survival tools, and poetry was central to that survival.

Over the last few years, COVID-19 and the virus of social injustice have added a new level of stress to the lives of children and young adults, and they need a healthy way to let those feelings out.  Poetry can be that avenue.  Writing an angry poem is certainly preferable to putting one’s fist through a wall, isn’t it?  And the poem won’t land the student in the principal’s office!  The only real question is, how do you introduce poetry to young readers and encourage them to write poetry of their own?

We are fortunate that today’s market is rich with poetry and novels in verse.  You only need to start where your students are.  If, for instance, they’re interested in sports, you can find collections featuring soccer, basketball, baseball, or track and field poems, for starters.  If biographies are more their speed, try a variety of biographies in verse.  If science is their jam, you’ll find collections on that topic.  If you’ve been trying to entice readers to get through a novel, try a novel in verse.  Once they see all that white space, they’ll be intrigued to give it a try.  They’ll assume fewer words on the page means the story is less complex.  They’ll be wrong, but by the time they figure that out, they’ll already be hooked.  And once they’re hooked, it’s easy to challenge them to write a poem, possibly using the author’s poems as templates for their own.

I’ve heard from teachers who have taught Bronx Masquerade, who went on to have their students use the book as a template for a collection of poetry about their own school.  Others use the seed of the book’s Open Mic Friday’s to hold open mic readings in their classrooms or assemblies.  Once students are given the tools to express themselves, it’s hard to get them to stop!  That’s a good problem to have.

Poetry Form

I’ve found that students respond especially well to poetry forms that give them somewhere to begin, forms like haiku, tanka, and golden shovel.  One Last Word and Legacy:Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance are two collections I created using the golden shovel format.  The idea is to take a short poem in its entirety, or a line from the poem, called a striking line, and to create a new poem using the words from the original.  Say you decide to use a single line: you would arrange that line, word by word, in the right margin.  





Then, you would write a new poem, with each line ending in one of these words.  In the example above, that would mean the first line of the new poem would end in the word “in”, the second line would end in the word “the”, and so on.  

I wake and shake off the morning as Mom tiptoes in.

“Rise and shine”, she whispers, always the

same old song.  “Get up.  Right

now!”  I groan on cue, but she gives me no margin.

Here are a few more examples:

This line is taken from the poem, “A Light and Diplomatic Bird” by Gwendolyn Brooks.  This is the first Golden Shovel poem I ever attempted.

Lashed With Riot Red and Black

Yesterday, God skipped thunder like stones, lashed

the land with pellets of H2O, each illumined with

scissored bits of lightning—a riot

of sight and sound, sharp as red,

sudden as death.  Watch for grayed skies and

grief remembered.  Both, for a moment, paint the world black.

Peace Be Still

Trayvon’s mom watched injustice kick peace

down the road, like a tin can.  But she’ll be

retrieving it once her son is able to rest quiet, still.

One of the things I love about this format is that you can apply it to a favorite lyric, or a stunning line from a newspaper article, or even a favorite line from a book of prose.  No matter where writers begin, there’s lots of room for them to pour out their own thoughts and feelings, and thereby learn for themselves the awesome power of poetry.  Give this a try! 

Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2022 CSK Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2020 ALAN Award for significant contributions to young adult literature, the 2017 Children’s Literature Legacy Medal for contributions to literature for children, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. The author of Coretta Scott King Author Award-winner Bronx Masquerade, and
recipient of five Coretta Scott King Author Honors, her most recent titles
include the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults title Between the Lines,
companion to Bronx Masquerade, NCTE Notable Book Words With
Wings, the 2018 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book
Garvey’s Choice, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor One Last Word, Printz
Honor and Sibert Honor Ordinary Hazards, a memoir in verse, ALA
Notable Legacy:Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance, ALA Notable
Southwest Sunrise, Kirkus Best Book Bedtime for Sweet Creatures, and
IMAGE Award Nominee Kamala Harris:Rooted in Justice. Ms. Grimes
lives in Corona, California.

Why We Need LGBTQ+ Literature for Children and Youth

By Lester Laminack

As a child in the 1960’s I knew I was attracted to other boys
long before I heard words like queer, homo, pansy, fag, fairy, or
gay. When finally, I did hear those words, they were used to
inflict humiliation or harm to boys like me.

The most common word I heard spoken about me was, “sissy.”
Early on it was more a whisper between adults. As I grew and
became more conscious of the venomous potential of those
words, it became louder. Those words were spoken about me as
I stood just on the edge of earshot. They were spoken to me by
those intending to demean and humiliate me as they attempted
to buoy themselves, to make themselves feel bigger and more

Those words attacked my soul, leaving sores that festered into
self-doubt and self-loathing. As a youth I was deeply involved
in my church and avoided, at all costs, disappointing my
community, my teachers, or my family. Everything I heard,
directly and indirectly, made it clear that what was truest and
most natural to me was considered abhorrent, weak, and sinful.
So, did I search for LBGTQ+ characters in the library or in the
literature we were assigned in school? No, I did not lament the
absence of characters who shared my feelings and longings
because I was consumed by denying those longings and trying
desperately to be what the world expects a boy to be. To be
honest I never expected anyone to write about a person like me,
after all people like me were not considered worth writing

In my youth I didn’t know a single LGBTQ+ person. Not one.
Not in my family, my circle of friends, or in my community.
Not on TV. Not in the movies I saw. Not in the news. So why
would I expect to see them in books at the school library?
Imagine your existence neither valued nor acknowledged.
Instead, everything you see and hear makes it clear that people
like you are not only devalued, but also abhorred. Imagine that
the person you know yourself to be, your truest, most natural
self, is something the world proclaims immoral and/or illegal.
Imagine you see reports on television and in newspapers
declaring that your identity is punishable by imprisonment,
even death in some parts of the world. And in your own country
you see religious groups gathering to protest your right to work
in certain professions, and your right to marry or raise children.
You see those groups organize rallies promoting legal
protection of anyone who would deny you services because
your existence offends their beliefs.

If this is what you witness as a young person, how willingly
would you reveal your most inner truth? How likely would you
be to deny and fear your own natural self instead? How likely
would you be to seek out someone like you in a book, a poem,
an article, a movie, or a song? Why would you? Especially
when the whole world proclaims that you, and those like you,
have no right to be who you truly are. So why would you

Even if I had bothered to search, I would not have found myself
in any book in the school library or the public library. Instead, I
hid and studied men who fit the stereotype of masculinity. I
watched them walk. I watched how they sat down and stood up.
I watched what they did with their hands while they talked. I
listened to how they spoke. Why? I lived in fear that I would be
found out, and I wanted so badly to “pass”. I firmly believed
that if my fear became a reality, it would destroy everything and
everyone that I held dear. So, I did everything to squelch that
part of me, to deny that I had a right to feel what I felt, the right
to be my truest self.

Teachers, literature could have been a validation reflecting my
humanity back to me; it could have been my mentor to help me
understand what I knew about myself. Stories, poems, memoirs
could have held my hand and given me guidance at a time when
the most natural part of me felt dirty, immoral, frightened, and
profoundly ashamed.

The larger culture perpetuated my feelings. There were jokes
and insults about people like me. I heard them among adults I
trusted and honored. I heard them among my schoolmates.

I heard them on TV. If anyone was even suspected of being LGBTQ+, there was nothing complimentary or honorable ever spoken about them.

By the time I was twelve I had a crush on a boy, and I felt all the feelings I had heard other boys feel about girls and and all the feelings I heard girls feel about boys. But I could share my feelings with neither my male friends, nor my female friends. None of them would have been a safe option. I had no guidance on how to share my truth, to claim my being. I had no mentors who could assure me that what I felt, what I feared, what I longed for were all normal human feelings. No one was there to pull me aside and say, “Everyone, yes EVERYone, feels what you are feeling and isn’t it glorious?” So, I hid it. I felt sinful and weak. I felt shame that I had somehow failed to be enough, failed to embrace my faith fully, failed to resist those thoughts and feelings.

Teachers, librarians, administrators, parents, school board
members, what if I had found even one book where a boy like
me was the main character? What if that character had a crush
on another boy in his school? What if that character told a
friend what he was feeling? What if that friend had celebrated
those feelings and acknowledged them as normal human
emotions? What if that character’s world didn’t fall apart, even
if the results were less than stellar, but that character endured,
and his friends and his family didn’t abandon him? And what if
those books were read and discussed by cisgender heterosexual
students? How would that experience humanize the LGBTQ+
classmates they know? How would those books lead to
conversations and insight that could help students focus on
what they have in common? What if literature became the salve
to heal the hurt and guide the heart and mind?

Friends is there any wonder why the suicide rate is three times
higher among LGBTQ+ youth than it is among cisgender
heterosexual youth? Read the statistics for yourself.

Some young people see no way to cope, no way to exist. I
believe that we owe those young people. We owe them
portrayals that move beyond stereotypes and simplifications
and gross exaggerations of their identities. We owe them
mirrors that reflect their full humanity, as well as windows
(Bishop, 1990
) that open the world for cisgender heterosexual
youth to see LGBTQ+ students as equally human and worthy
with amazing potential for contributing to this world.

Why do we need LGBTQ+ literature?
Literature is a tremendous equalizing force that has the
potential to validate our existence and broaden our
understanding of what it means to be human. It allows us to
safely step outside the boundaries of our confined experience. It
allows personal, intimate interactions with characters with
whom we can identify and with others who are different from
us. In fact, stepping into a book and walking with a character
may be the one experience in which a student’s personal
feelings, fears, wishes, and dreams are shared and acceptable.
Literature provides our children and youth an opportunity to
broaden their visions of what it is like to share their deepest
truth, to face their greatest fear, and to live through the
aftermath of that experience. It is equally important to read
nonfiction that reveals the truths about Stonewall, state and
federal laws, the role of the Supreme Court in Obergfell v
Hodges, and the contributions of LGBTQ+ Americans to
culture and economy, invention and creation, art and sports and

When I was a young person there would have been nothing in
the library to give me guidance, but that is not true today. In
fact, there is a wealth of developmentally appropriate fiction
and nonfiction written specifically for children and youth
including story, essay, memoir, biography, historical fiction,
and poetry. For a list of titles to get you started, check the link
in the resources for a list gathered by CCIRA. Have a look and
read a few. Get to know what is available so you can be an
advocate for the young people who look to you for guidance
and support. Know what is available so you can participate in
an informed conversation with adults who seek to ban or censor
or limit access to all young people.

We must embrace and advocate for all our young people. We
must embrace our common humanity, all that goes deeper than
the language of our tongues, deeper than the cultural traditions
that guide us, deeper than the spiritual practice we engage in,
deeper than the color of our skin, deeper than who we are wired
to love. Perhaps one of our greatest gifts as human beings is our
ability to see beyond our differences and into our common
humanity. It is our responsibility as human beings to lift one
another, to celebrate all that makes us one diverse and
magnificent family.

And yet…
As I write this in the sixth month of the year 2022, I am an
adult who has come through six decades of this, yet I am
hesitant to save and hit send. Even at this age I pause with a
tinge of fear, the same sort of fear that many LGBTQ+ people
live with each day because of the policies and laws being
passed to limit what can be read and what can be said. But I
want to be the adult I wish I had known as a young person, so I
take a deep breath and press send hoping that this will give you
the insight, strength, and resolve to be the adult all children

And now, my friends, I ask you to do the same. Take a deep
breath and step up. Make a commitment to read at least 10
books from the CCIRA list this summer. Inform yourself
enough to be an advocate for your students this fall and create a
concrete plan for how you will do that. Decide how you will create
a classroom community where every student is physically and
emotionally safe to be who they are. Pledge to stand up and
speak out, you may well save the life of a child.

Resources to help you support LGBTQ youth:

HRC (Human Rights Campaign)—glossary of LGBTQ+ terms


The Trevor Project

Safe Schools Coalition

Youth Pride Association

Five Ways to Support LGBTQ Youth


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual, and Transgender Health/Youth Resources)

Partnership to End Addiction (LGBTQ+, Family & Substance Abuse

Lester L. Laminack is Professor Emeritus at Western Carolina University where he received two awards for excellence in teaching. Lester is now a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the United States. Lester has coauthored a number of professional books including Writers ARE Readers: Flipping Reading Instruction into Writing OpportunitiesLearning Under the Influence of Language and LiteratureReading Aloud Across the Curriculum; The Ultimate Read-Aloud Resource, Cracking Open the Author’s Craft and Bullying Hurts. In addition he has several articles published in journals such as The Reading TeacherScience and ChildrenLanguage ArtsPrimary Voices; and Young Children. Lester is also the author of seven children’s books.  Three Hens, A Peacock, and the Enormous Egg (a sequel to Three Hens and a Peacock) will be released in February 2023, and A Cat Like That is under contract. Connect with him on @lester_laminack.

Have a Few Extra Minutes? Use Interactive Writing to Teach Foundational Skills

By C.C. Bates, Ph.D.

Interactive Writing

As the first graders in Room 206 begin to write a list of facts about dental hygiene, they decide to start by labeling the chart Teeth Facts. It may be quicker for me as the teacher to act as a scribe and simply write the title of the chart and the facts learned, but it certainly would not be as powerful. Engaging in Interactive Writing (IW) ups the ante and turns the writing of a traditional chart or text into a multi-layered learning experience. Interactive writing is the evolution of language experience and shared writing. It capitalizes on students’ ideas to create readable texts, and through intentional decision making I can leverage the activity to teach a range of skills and concepts.


As teachers, we all have times in the day when we’ve finished up a few minutes early, and if you are like me, I want to make sure I dedicate every possible moment to teaching and learning. I have always referred to this extra time and how I use it as a “five-minute filler” or FmF for short. 

While setting aside a specific time for IW in a daily schedule is important, I also find using these FmFs to engage students in negotiating, creating, writing, and reading texts helps make the most of every minute of the day. Often, the texts I create with students during FmFs are an extension of a unit in science or social studies, either way focusing on IW gives me extra time across the day to integrate literacy into the curriculum. So, over the course of several days, the students in Room 206 will engage in a culminating discussion about a unit on dental health and we will use the FmFs that occur to add to our Teeth Facts chart.

Teaching Foundation Skills 

During IW my focus is on teaching foundational skills as we create an authentic and meaningful text. Through this effective literacy practice, children develop oral language and vocabulary while at the same time learning about concepts of print, engaging in phonological and phonemic analysis, and acquiring alphabetic and orthographic knowledge. Depending on my instructional goals and the opportunities presented as we create the text, I can readily emphasize these skills that contribute to successful reading and writing. 

For example, I can reinforce orthographic mapping. In a recent article by Nell Duke and Kelly Cartwright (2021), they state that the “links among phonology, orthography, and words’ meanings (i.e., vocabulary) are at the heart of orthographic mapping: the linking of words’ spellings, pronunciations, and meanings in memory” (p. S29). What better place to connect phonology, orthography, and words’ meanings than during IW? 

To illustrate orthographic mapping, l will use the dental health chart as an exampleOnce the students decided to title the chart Teeth Facts, we immediately began to write the word “teeth.” Most first graders’ vocabulary includes the word teeth but if not, I know the word teeth has been introduced and used on numerous occasions during the unit. My instructional goal during IW was to demonstrate how to link the phonological and orthographic information of a word the students could define. 

When we write, we work from sound to letter. Through a slow and natural articulation of the word, the students in Room 206 identified that “teeth” has three sounds or phonemes. Next, we focused on connecting each phoneme to its corresponding grapheme. A grapheme is a letter or letters that serve as a written representation of a phoneme, which means if a word has three phonemes /t//ee//th/ it will also have three graphemes t-ee-th. 

The many ways long e can be represented is certainly a skill being taught in first grade and IW provides an opportunity to apply these skills in connected text. As the word “teeth” was written, I quickly put the t down and then purposefully selected a student to add ee. Once the vowel combination representing long e was added to the chart, we blended /t//ee/ together and discussed the final sound in teeth, the digraph /th/. I chose another student to add th to the chart and then we reread the word as I slid my finger underneath emphasizing the sound/letter match. Having students participate in the writing of a text allows me to target my instruction based on student’s individual strengths and/or what I may be working on during small group instruction. 

In Closing

During the first FmF, we only got the title of the chart written, but by the end of the week I was able to capitalize on the extra time in our day and the students and I wrote five facts they learned about teeth and dental care. These short bursts of IW spread across the school week eventually produced a completed text. Each time we added to the chart the students reread what they had written which led to opportunities to practice phrased and fluent reading and to engage in comprehension monitoring. If you are interested in learning more about IW including ways to use the text as a teaching tool to support reading, I invite you to read my book Interactive Writing: Developing Readers through Writing

Duke, N. K., & Cartwright, K. B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly56, S25-S44.

C.C. Bates, Ph.D., is a Professor of Literacy Education at Clemson University. Her work has been published in The Reading Teacher, Young Children, and The Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education. She is the author of Interactive Writing: Developing Readers Through Writing (Benchmark).

Creating a Narrative of Progress: Broadening the Definition of Reading Growth

By Dr. Jennifer Scoggin and Hannah Schneewind

This spring, we were kidwatching during Independent Reading in a first grade classroom. A boy with a huge pile of books in front of him beckoned us over. “Listen to me read!” he said gleefully. He read book after book, pointing out all the funny parts. “I’m a good reader!” he proclaimed. 

Later, his teacher confided in us, “I’m worried that no one will recognize his growth. No one will know how he felt about himself as a reader in September and compare it to how he feels about himself now.  They won’t see the joy that reading brings him or how he sees it as part of his life now, when in September he only occasionally picked up a book.  They will just see his level on the test and label him as a struggling reader.”

This encapsulates the ongoing contradiction between how reading growth is traditionally measured and defined by tests, and what teachers observe and experience to be a more complete concept of reading growth. Current policy and testing practices continue to reinforce the misconception that student reading growth encompasses solely the accumulation of skills and strategies (Afflerbach, 2022), thereby reducing the definition of what constitutes reading growth.  However, both the experience of teachers and an overwhelming amount of research tell us reading is more complex than that. What constitutes reading growth and how it is measured needs to better reflect this complexity (ILA, 2018), expanding to include aspects of reading such as engagement, motivation and self-efficacy. 

What we see as growth, and what students feel is growth is disconnected from what is officially recognized as growth.  At the end of the school year, reading growth is too often reduced to a grade on the report card or  a number or letter, or is defined by a set of discrete skills that can be measured by  standardized tests.  These measures do not capture the joy or the nuances of being a reader.

What data counts?

Data promises to inform and support the work of teachers, and yet data has become a burden.  In reality, many teachers are drowning in data, and not the sort of data they find useful.  Typically, the data teachers are directed to utilize is confined to big data such as standardized tests, universal screeners or benchmark data. That sort of data is often used to tell a story of “learning loss” or name who is “below grade level.”    A recent Hechinger report (February, 2022) asked “…  has all that time teachers spent studying data helped students learn? The emerging answer from education researchers is no.” This comes as no surprise to educators themselves. The big data that is valued by the system is not the data that supports the work of teachers in classrooms in meaningful ways, yet it tends to dominate our time, our definitions of achievement,  and the stories told about our students and our work.

An over reliance on this big data runs the risk of narrowing the vision of the role of the teacher.  When framed by deficit-minded data, the teacher turns into someone who fills gaps  and catches students up to the benchmarks that indicate grade level proficiency.  

Our role is to teach responsively, not to “fill gaps.”  Our role is to be asset-minded. Our role is to assume a stance of non-judgemental relentlessness in the pursuit of growing readers. Our role is to uncover student strengths and provide relevant feedback that will build upon those strengths. Our role is to center students. In our hearts, we know that big data often limits our role as teachers of readers and does not tell the whole story of our students.  When small data, such as kidwatching or conferring notes, is valued, we are suddenly presented with a more nuanced portrait of growth that indicates relevant next steps for each student.

Navigating the Contradiction

We urge teachers to harness their sense of agency and take control of the narrative by expanding the definition of reading growth to tell an authentic  story of progress. Maxine Greene, the great educational philosopher, believes that teachers have an obligation to choose to engage with struggle, such as the contradiction discussed above.  She states that by engaging in these struggles, rather than giving in to one side or the other, teachers can move toward a state of “wide awakeness” that welcomes the creativity and agency necessary to humanize and transform possibilities in education.  In Releasing the Imagination (1995), she writes, “…to learn and to teach, one must have an awareness of leaving something behind while reaching toward something new, and this kind of awareness must be linked to imagination.” How can we navigate this contradiction  and imagine new spaces of possibility for our students and ourselves? 

Here are some practical ways to navigate this contradiction:

  • Prioritize Independent Reading and the Read Aloud

Both Independent Reading and the read aloud are research-backed literacy practices that satisfy standards while meeting students where they are.  Independent Reading time has the potential to develop reading comprehension ability, vocabulary, grammar and spelling (Krashen, 2004), spark actions for a more just world, (German, 2021), improve reading fluency (Allington, 2014) … and the list of advantages goes on and on.   Every student has the right to Independent Reading; it is not an add-on or a luxury.  Similarly, the read aloud is an enjoyable and impactful time of day. Effective read-alouds increase children’s vocabulary, listening comprehension, story schema, background knowledge, word recognition skills, and cognitive development. (ILA, 2018).

During Independent Reading and the read aloud, teachers have the opportunity to engage in intentional kidwatching, to notice and name the strengths of students as readers, and to begin to build a broad understanding of reading growth for each child across the school year. During Independent Reading and the read aloud, students have the opportunity to be their authentic reading selves.

  • Honor, consider and follow the growth of the identity of each reader

 On this blog in March  of 2021, we shared our definition of reading identity (Reflection and Discovery: The Power of Reading Identity in Independent Reading ) We define reading identity as having five aspects: attitude, self-efficacy, habits, book choice and process.  If we use these aspects as a jumping off point for imagining what reading growth means, then reading growth becomes authentic and includes much more than a grade. Reading growth can (and should)  include:

  • Choosing different genres
  • Reading for longer periods of time
  • Having favorite books
  • Using a variety of strategies to decode words independently
  • Holding on to multiple plot lines and characters
  • Comparing and contrasting genres and books
  • Responding to texts in a variety of ways
  • Wanting to read
  • Knowing book preferences
  • Declaring: “I am a reader.”

As you  confer with students during Independent Reading, provide feedback on what you observe about their growth. Invite students in class discussions to reflect on how they have grown as readers. Ask: “What are the ways in which you have changed as a reader?  What made you change?”  Encourage students to tell stories about themselves as readers and how their reading life has developed. 

  • Reclaim Your Role

Regie Routman (2003) writes that “teaching with urgency means focusing relentlessly on what is most important every single day.”  Therefore, teaching with urgency means to teach responsively, to start with student strengths and to provide relevant feedback that build upon those strengths with clear next steps. Students are what is most important every single day.  It is through the lens of deep understanding of our students as readers and learners, that we must approach curriculum, assessment and methods of instruction.  To put students at the center, teachers must continuously reflect on the impact of their decisions, the curriculum and assessment opportunities.  It also means that as a result of this reflection, teachers feel a sense of agency to not only embrace and expand upon what is working, but to give themselves the grace to let go of those practices, routines or tasks that no longer invite positive or productive outcomes for students.

 In one classroom, a veteran fourth-grade teacher chose to abandon a read aloud text that had worked for years, because it no longer captured the attention of her class.  Instead, she presented the class with a variety of possible texts that fit the genre and purpose of her current instruction; when the students were involved in picking the read aloud, their engagement in class discussions soared.  In another classroom, a teacher realized that she never got to the read aloud, because it was at the end of the day. She changed the schedule so that she started the day with the read aloud. Students were actively involved in class conversations, and the read aloud became a jumping off point of instruction. 

  • Trust Small Data and Broaden the Definition of Reading Growth

We know that big data does not tell the whole story. Instead, big data measures such as state tests might show that students are “behind” or “at mastery” or “meet the standard.”  

In contrast, small data, such as kidwatching notes, presents a more nuanced portrait of growth and indicates relevant next steps for each student.  It provides actionable, in-the-moment data upon which teachers can take action.  Take charge of how time in data-focused meetings is spent. Shift team meetings to include analysis of small data; focus on naming strengths, and the natural next steps that build upon those strengths.  In tandem, these two moves can shift both the instructional and emotional climate to embrace a narrative of progress that is beneficial to the morale and growth of students and educators alike.

Final Thoughts

So how are you going to move forward? We urge you to focus on and imagine what could be, rather than feeling weighed down by what is, because imagining and expanding upon what reading growth can and should encompass is a step toward reclaiming a narrative of progress. 

We urge you to take the brave step of moving away from limited definitions of growth and advocating for all that counts when we consider the authentic reading lives of students in and beyond school. For teachers, a wider stance allows us the ability to center students and focus on teaching readers, not just reading. For students, this wider stance honors their authentic reading lives, their whole reading identities and their everyday reading successes.

As your school year comes to a close, know that your observations of students and students’ reflections  count as data. Encouraging your students to believe in themselves as readers, and supporting students to understand their identities as readers counts as growth. Broadening your students’ repertoire of strategies counts as growth. Nurturing your students’ sense of trust that they are and will continue to be readers counts as growth.  It all counts.  

Dr. Jennifer Scoggin has been a teacher, author, speaker, curriculum writer, and literacy consultant.  Jennifer’s interest in the evolving identities of both students and teachers and her growing obsession with children’s literature led her to and informs her work. 

Hannah Schneewind has been a teacher, staff developer, curriculum writer, keynote speaker and national literacy consultant. She brings with her over 25 years of experience to the education world. Hannah’s interest in student and teacher agency and her belief in the power of books informs her work with schools.

Together, Jen and Hannah are the authors of Trusting Readers: Powerful Practices for Independent Reading, published by Heinemann. They are the  co-creators of Trusting Readers (@TrustingReaders), a group dedicated to collaborating with teachers to design high quality literacy opportunities that invite all students to be engaged and to thrive as readers and writers.

Works Cited:

Afflerbach, Peter. 2022. Teaching Readers (Not Reading): Moving Beyond Skill and Strategies to Reader-Focused Instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. 

Allington, Richard L. 2014. “How Reading Volume Affects Both Reading Fluency and Reading Achievement.” International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education 7 (1):95-104.

German, Lorena. 2021.  Textured Reading: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Greene, Maxine. 1995.  Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts and social change.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hechinger Report. 2022. Proof Points: Researchers blast data analysis for teachers to help students.  New York, NY:

International Literacy Association (ILA). 2018. Literacy Leadership Brief: The Power andPromise of Read-Alouds and Independent Reading.  No. 9445. Newark, DE promise-read-alouds-independent-reading.pdf.

Krashen, Stephen. 2004. The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Routman, Regie. 2003. Reading Essentials: The specifics you need to teach reading well.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.