A collection of observations regarding the fostering of literacy practice

On the subject of the value of reading, I can sum up the importance of language and literacy in three words: independence, control, and participation. A person who speaks on his or her own behalf and who is a skilled reader and writer can independently advocate for him- or herself and navigate his or her own learning. And since literacy is a constructive skill (as Wittgenstein's picture theory suggests), the individual learns ways to control and critically reflect on experience.  And the development of language and literacy skills amongst a community of practice allows one to participate in that group, to contribute to that group and to find a valued identity therein.

Language, literacy and knowledge allows one to shape the world around one and they allow for one's perception of the world to be shaped by others. Literacy allows one to access information; construct and organise knowledge; participate in a community of practitioners; adopt the many ways of being readers and writers; and persuade (and be persuaded), inform (and be informed), entertain (and be entertained) … ponder, explore, speculate upon, confirm and represent experience.  

"Learning to read is a developmental process that takes place over time, involves qualitatively different (but perhaps overlapping) phases, and may break down at different points due to the failure to acquire the core skills that underlie the development of literacy" (quoted by Turnmer, et al, 2013, that referenced Ehri, 2005; Pressley, 2006; Snow & Juel, 2005; Tunmer & Nicolson, 2011).

That said, the child (or emerging learner) is not faced with the prospect of developing such complex skills from the get go. There is a progressive, temporal dimension to this learning where the child is supported by others to develop foundational skills which lead into competency which lead to mastery which lead to further disciplinary practice. 

In the words of Moyal-Sharrock (2010), "acquiring language is like learning to walk: the child is stepped into language by an initiator and, after much hesitation and repeated faltering, with time and multifarious practice and exposure, it disengages itself from the teacher's hold and is able, as it were, to run with the language." (2010, pg 6) 

Therefore, in the social view of language acquisition, the learner must be "a biologically and socially adept human being ... susceptible to training ... [with] fundamental trust [in] the authority of the teacher ... [engaged in] socio-linguistic interaction ... transmissible ... through enculturation" (Moyal-Sharrock, 2010, pg 6 - 7).

This human, interactive element is essential in the constructivist model of learning. It is exemplified in the image painted by esteemed literacy expert Maryanne Wolf, “my other vivid memory of those days centres on Sister Salesia, trying her utmost to teach the children who couldn’t seem to learn to read. I watched her listening patiently to these children’s torturous attempts during the school day, and then all over again after school, one child at a time ... My best friend, Jim, ... looked like a pale version of himself, haltingly coming up with the letter sounds Sister Salesia asked for. It turned my world topsy-turvy to see this indomitable boy so unsure of himself. For at least a year they worked quietly and determinedly after school ended.” (Wolf, 2008, p 111 - 112)

We must remember that “[literacy] is grounded in the material world in at least three ways: the writer communicates using material objects (letters, pen, paper, word processor, internet), which in turn shape the writing; the product of writing, that is the text itself, is a material object in itself; and the text also often influences events in the material world.” (Bracewell & Witte, 2008, pg 299)

In context, “a writer’s history is seen in the individual and idiosyncratic knowledge and processes that are brought to bear as the writer composes for particular readers, selects content for text, structures the text, and evaluates and modifies it.” (Bracewell & Witte, 2008, pg 299)

As part of practice, “Bourdieu (1990) proposed the construct of habitus to account for regularities in performance, or, as Bourdieu would call it, the practices of activity … With respect to how habitus arises, Bourdieu places heavy emphasis on the process of embodiment or incorporation.” (Bracewell & Witte, 2008, pg 300)

In time, one develops expertise. Expertise from comes a long and motivated experience in a domain, an experience that produces a large and complex knowledge base that one uses in the course of activity (Ericsson and Smith, 1991).


Five Stages of Reading Development

  1. Emerging pre-reader
  2. The novice reading
  3. The decoding reader
  4. The fluent reader
  5. The comprehending reader

Simultaneously, there will be a parallel development in consideration of written development:

  1. Emerging pre-writer
  2. The novice writer
  3. The accurate writer
  4. The proficient writer
  5. The purposeful, strategic writer

From the expert perspective, "an engaged reader [and writer] is one who is motivated, knowledgeable, strategic and socially interactive. The engaged reader [and writer] is viewed as motivated to read and write for diverse purposes, an active knowledge constructor, an effective user of cognitive strategies and a participant in social interactions.  (Rueda et al., 2001). 

The question is not "are the students' learning?". It should be, "are they learning at the rate required to achieve"? It is not enough to report that students are developing. The question is whether they are learning at the rate necessary to adequately participate in the modern economy. The most vulnerable are those who fall outside of the predominant instructional paradigm of the classroom. "The literacy learning needs of children necessarily vary because they differ in: (i) the amount of reading-related knowledge, skills, and experiences (i.e., literate cultural capital) they bring to the classroom; (ii) the explicitness and intensity of instruction they require to learn skills and strategies for identifying words and comprehending text, and; (iii) their location along the developmental progression from pre-reader to skilled reader.” (Tunmer et al, 2013, p. vii)


Core factors impacting success

  1. Accuracy of the initial assessment (so the student can be placed in the correct level)
    1. What diagnostic tool (or tools) are used?
    2. How frequently?
    3. Is the initial tool the same as the tool used in the progress status?
  2. Tracking of progress across key dimensions 
    1. Constrained skills
    2. Unconstrained skills #1 (Vocabulary)
    3. Fluency
    4. Comprehension
    5. Analysis
    6. Responding & representing
  3. Convening to determine next steps and ways to encourage next steps for development (in the classroom, in the tutoring centre and the home)
  4. Ensuring that motivation is maintained and that learners share in understanding the learning intentions (articulating goals)
  5. Consistent and regular attendance is vital


A conscientious professional is required to:

  1. Track progress and regularly review instruction;
  2. Provide instruction that is suitable to the level of development; 
  3. Encourage literacy across a range of topic areas and genres;
  4. Provide space for explicit (intensive), guided (scaffolded), and independent (choice) practice; and
  5. Establish opportunities for the development of written compositional skills.

Talk of best practices, teaching programs, cycles, and progressions can lull the casual observer into believing that programs on their own bring about result. A program's success is only as powerful as the vision and determination of the teacher delivering it and the learning engaging in it. A learner's pathway is so very fragile, and a learner's pathway can be derailed if teachers move in and out of a child's life.

Gambrell, Malloy & Mazzoni (2011) warns literacy educators of avoiding the hard work. They warm educators to avoid seeking 'magic bullets', or of hoping that linear development in discrete skills will 'magically improve' reading achievement (now and to the future). Talk of magic or silver bullets fails to take into account how one's literacy journey is never complete, even if reading development is incremental and moves through stages. Adults must be ever vigilant and sensitive to this development and be there to encourage and motivate the leaps in skills as learners consolidate past skills and move toward new expectations.


A full, balanced and comprehensive literacy curriculum would need to include:

  • focus on building skills;
  • scaffold rich and diverse comprehension;
  • model and support composition as a cognitive and social practice;
  • anchor reading and writing in authentic, real world learning practices; and
  • motivate and inspire learners to become (embody) the role of readers and writers.

Each lesson should include practice that is both *intensive* and *extensive* practice (Anderson, 2013). Whereever possible, lesson sequences should be organised around **thematic units** that require readers to encounter content in diverse genres AND develop and synthesise knowledge and skills across lessons.


An Ideal Tutoring Environment Would Contain:

  1. Clear, clean, well-resourced learning environments;
  2. Well-organised student folders that teachers and tutors can access upon arrival;
  3. Well-organised curriculum folders that tutors can access under guidance from the site coordinator;
  4. A well-stocked library where tutors and students can collect books for independent (or choice reading);
  5. A bright encouraging environments that can showcase reading successes (whilst avoiding competition);
  6. Clear area where tutors can record feedback and provide recommendations; and
  7. A process whereby tutors report on progress in a way where site coordinators can review progress and communicate progress to classroom teachers.


The research tells us that effective instruction occurs:

  • When a clear opening assessment is made and teachers are able to track ongoing development;
  • Goals (learning intentions) are expressed clearly and that progressive steps are sequenced and monitored;
  • There is a focus on learning (high expectation/high challenge —> high support; and 
  • There is a respect for the integrity of the learning is maintained throughout.



  • Anderson, N. J. (2013). A curricular model for reading: the inclusion of extensive reading. TESOL Reporter, 46(1-2), 1–9.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Bracewell, R., & Witte, S. (2008). Implications of practice, activity, and semiotic theory for cognitive constructs of writing. In J. Albright & A. Luke (Eds.), Pierre Bourdieu and literacy education (pp. 299 – 315). London: Routledge.
  • Ehri, L.C. (2005). Development of sight word reading: Phases and findings. In M. J. Snowling & C. Hulme (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 135-154). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  • Ericsson, K., & Smith, H. (1991). Toward a general theory of expertise: prospects and limits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gambrell, L. B., Malloy, J. A., & Mazzoni, S. A. (2011). Evidence-based best practices in comprehensive literacy instruction. In L. M. Morrow & L. B. Gambrell (Eds.), Best practices in literacy instruction (4th ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Moyal-Sharrock, D. (2010). Coming to Language: Wittgenstein’s Social “Theory” of Language Acquisition. In SOL Conference 6-8 May 2010. Bucharest.
  • Pressley, M. (2006). Reading instruction that works: The case for balanced teaching. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Rueda, R., MacGillivray, L., Monzó, L., & Arzubiaga, A. (2000). Engaged reading: a multilevel approach to considering sociocultural factors with diverse learners. Ann Arbor: CIERA
  • Snow, C. E., & Juel, C. (2005). Teaching children to read: What do we know about how to do it? In M. J. Snowling & C. Hulme (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 501- 520). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Tunmer, W. E., Chapman, J. W., Greaney, K. T., Prochnow, J. E., & Arrow, A. W. (2013). Why the New Zealand national literacy strategy has failed and what can be done about it: evidence from the progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2011 and Reading Recovery Monitoring Reports.
  • Tunmer, W. E., & Nicholson, T. (2011). The development and teaching of word recognition skill. In M. L. Kamil, P. D. Pearson, E. B. Moje, & P. Afflerbach (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 4, pp. 405-431). New York: Routledge.
  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.