Major Themes in Literacy Teaching and Learning

"In becoming literate, one must acquire skills that are only remotely related to print as well as those that are directly related." (Snow, et al, 1991, p. 5)

Catherine Snow's observation is particularly relevant to managing balanced literacy instruction. In addition to attending to comprehension skills, compositional skills and print-based skills (e.g. phonemic awareness, spelling skills, fluency, etc), such instruction must take into account the learning of the language itself; the situations in which we speak, listen, read and write; what we are actually trying to learn (e.g. cooking, gardening, football, etc); and the desires, needs, preferences, relationships, experiences and knowledge that we bring to the learning.

"[We] forget that we learn language and learn the world together" (Cavell, 1969, pg 19).

If I were to encourage a balanced literacy pedagogy, it would include a balance of the following:

  • creating environments and experiences that fosters learning, language and literacy;
  • fosterng the development of oral language;
  • developing word recognition skills;
  • expanding vocabulary and depth of word meanings;
  • scaffolding reading;
  • scaffolding writing;
  • encouraging the conceptualisation, representation & retention of knowledge;
  • acquiring disciplinary practices; and 
  • keeping a pulse on motivation, expertise and transitions.

Such a pedagogy would recognise that:

  1. Human language is a practice and it involves practice
  2. That practice involves attending to and mastering salient aspects of language.
  3. Whilst spoken language is arguable developed by all, literacy is the acquisition of a code that many take for granted.
  4. This development is incremental and moves through stages. Adults must be ever vigilant and sensitive to this development.
  5. At every stage it is important to emphasise and model language and literacy in ways that are meaningful, purposeful and about discovery.
  6. The teacher’s role is to help the child by arranging tasks and activities in such a way that they are more easily accessible.
  7. The teacher must also ensure that adequate time and space is made available (especially in the great hurly burly of contemporary life).
  8. It is important that learners have opportunities to achieve mastery of skills and strategies.
  9. This requires an introduction to the routines, habits and ways of using language and literacy as mediating tools.
  10. We should not underestimate the important role that emotional commitment and attachment plays in the intake, uptake and embodiment of learning.
  11. We must acknowledge that all learning is conducted with others in context and is dependent on access to tools and resources.
  12. It is important to recognise that there are multiple ways of reading and it is vital to create contexts where a range of literacies are developed.
  13. An individual's reading and writing practices become more specialised as he or she grows into social, community and economic spheres.
  14. Teaching practitioners must be aware of the material and social factors that impinge upon an individual's successful development of a range of language, literacy and learning practices.

We must remember, in the words of Moyal-Sharrock (2010), how "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)


Developmental Stages for Reading

"In a developmental theory, literacy is not a single skill that simply gets better with age or instruction, as a sprinter's running time gets better with practice and conditioning. Being literate is a very different enterprise for the skilled first grader, fourth grader, high school student, and adult, and the effects of school experiences can be quite different at different points in a child's development." (Snow, et al., 1991, pg 6) 

The developmental nature of reading is captured in the six stages of reading development presented by Jeanine Chall (1996). Across the six stages, one can  consider three skill domains and six developmental areas. In relation to the developmental stages of reading, Chall (1996) identified six stages:

  • Stage 0: Pre-reading development (6 months - 6 years);
  • Stage 1: Initial reading & decoding (6 - 7 years old);
  • Stage 2: Confirmation & fluency (7 - 8 years old);
  • Stage 3: Learning the new (9 - 11 years old & 12 - 14 years old)
  • Stage 4: Applying multiple perspectives (personal, disciplinary & critical) (15 - 17 years old)
  • Stage 5: Constructing & reconstructing knowledge and practice (18 year old and beyond)


Skill Domains

The three skill domains are: 

  • constrained skills;
  • intermediate (expressive and receptive) skills; and
  • disciplinary forms and practices.

Constrained skills include those skills which are necessary but not sufficient for full literacy, such phonemic awareness, fluency and spelling proficiency (Paris, 2005). Constrained skills should be taught systematically and intensively and in relatively short periods of time with regular practice that build upon itself. 

Intermediate skills, on the other hand, include general habits of the mind (such as general comprehension, composition and learning strategies) as well as the development of a diverse vocabulary. Intermediate skills include shared reading practices, writing workshops, scaffolded comprehension and structured talk. These and similar techniques should instruct learners into the habits of good writers, readers and learnings and should be reinforced with sufficient practice in reading, writing and learning cycles. 

Disciplinary practices, however, include the more specific discourses and knowledge practices that are often linked to the aims and objectives of different communities of practice. As Goldman writes, "comprehension instruction that focuses only on generic reading strategies ... falls short because comprehension itself becomes more complex and expansive as students mature and progress from grade to grade.” (Goldman, 2012, pg. 96 - 97) When we read and write in particular contexts, we must utilise the conventions of fields of practice, whether this involves the domains of history or religion or commerce, etc. Disciplinary practices are complex in nature and draw upon a range of verbal and non-verbal knowledge. 

As alluded to above, each of the skill domains requires different teaching methods:

  1. Systematic, intensive and structured teaching of constrained skills;
  2. Established routines to foster skills, fluency and cognitive processing that foster the imagination, scaffold comprehension and composition and develop expertise; and 
  3. Rich, scaffolding opportunities to meet the expectations of disciplinary practice, which includes a focus on effectiveness and critical reflection.

Even though the three skill domains could be seen to be sequential stages, I would like to emphasise that each skill domain should be practiced at each stage of a reader’s development; however, the balance of such practice will be dependent on the developmental stage of the learner. 

For instance, it is important that a Year 1 student  (READING STAGE ONE) has substantial experience developing mastery of constrained skills; however, that same child should have opportunities for rich, scaffolded interaction with reading, writing, speaking & listening (DOMAIN TWO) as well as apprenticeship in purposeful ways of using language, such as developing a class brochure for a kitchen garden and participating in presenting the daily weather report (DOMAIN THREE) (Au & Raphael, 2010). Likewise, a senior school student (READING STAGE FIVE) will be focusing on disciplinary practices in reading, writing and learning in science, social studies, art, etc (DOMAIN THREE). However, the same student should also be encouraged to reflect on general compositional practices and habits (DOMAIN TWO) as well as a refined morphology and syntax of the language (DOMAIN ONE).


Developmental Areas

In each stage or unit, a practitioner should reflect upon the learner's development in the following six developmental areas:

  • Language development (e.g. vocabulary development, language knowledge, syntax, etc), 
  • Confidence and competency with speaking & listening skills, 
  • Reading, viewing & responding,
  • Writing & representing, 
  • Developing knowledge & ways of knowing, and 
  • Fostering the learner's motivation, attitudes, habits and self-concept

It is essential that experienced adults “keep the finger on the pulse” to ensure that younger learners are developing the skills, practices, knowledge, habits and attitudes that are required presently and which will be required in subsequent stages.

Even though early learners require structured, sequenced training in literacy, teachers should also challenge the students to think critically through supported, scaffolded practices. For instance, we would encourage teachers to use the mode continuum (or the Language Experience Approach) in order to use structured talk to model genres of communication, practice content-area vocabulary and transition from oral to written modes of expression. Research finds that structure and challenge are key components of effective literacy and language instruction (Chall, Jacobs & Baldwin, 1990). 

Learners should have the opportunity to consolidate current skills (that they are expected to complete independently at the current stage) whilst experiencing more advanced skills (that they can complete through the assistance/scaffolding/modelling of an experienced adult). Too often literacy instruction will stagnate at one level without providing the instructional momentum for further stages of development. 

Lastly, despite the valid claim that - once mastered - constrained skills are not revisited (Paris, 2005; Stahl, 2011), it is also true that revisiting early skills can raise more critical attention to those earlier developments. Initially, “we acquire our linguistic capacities and our ability to participate in human life rather by imitation and habituation, by drill and practice ... Eventually we learn, of course, also to reflect on our grammar and it is at this point that we learn to understand, use, and even construct surveyable representations of it." (Sluga, 2011, pg 107 - 108)


Achieving Equity

The ultimate goal is education, and we should never underestimate the practical, emotional and deliberative factors which must all align for deep discovery to take place. We must continue to ask the following questions:

  • Is there effective teaching? Are there effective spaces for teaching and learning?
  • Is there a commitment of key stakeholders?
  • What are the opportunities and motivations for practice and application?
  • What presents themselves as barriers to education and how to minimise these barriers?

For quality education to become a reality, there must be coherent & developmental instruction; passionate & visionary teachers, peers and/or caregivers; quality materials, resources & practices; and a respect for the learners' cultures, experiences and pathways. 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). We must work to create joint attention in which all participants share a sense of mutual accomplishment within enabling structures.

As mentioned previously, equity in opportunity to learn requires that the learner has:

  • Substantial amount of engaged time on task which is not disrupted by teacher and student absenteeism;
  • Access to quality teaching, resources and environments;
  • A coalition of support including teachers, parents, community members and peers;
  • Safe and secure environments free from discrimination and abundant in high educational expectations;
  • Respect for the funds of knowledge that the learners bring to the learning environments and their cultural way of knowing. This includes a respect for the cultural, social and economic space and the way of knowing particular to it and its occupants, even in an era of globalisation, nationalism and standardisation;
  • Structuring structures that structure structure, which refers to the aggregate effect of supportive environments, financial capital, social relationships and the employment/educational marketplace;
  • Resilience, grit, agency and purpose demonstrated by learners as well as from their teachers and their caregivers; and 
  • Substantial opportunities to practice with key opportunities to turn such practice into sustained existence (e.g. jobs, clubs, etc).

If we supposedly know the essentials for achieving equity in opportunity to learn, why is it that we allow the achievement gap to widen? Do we put this down to lingustic differences, cultural differences, discrimination, inadequate or negligent teaching, or disagreement over the rationales for schooling? (Au, 1998) Are “disadvantaged” learners in environments that encourages complacency, a lack of self-efficacy or a lack of rigour? Are there inadequate learning materials, limited learning opportunities, and ineffective feedback? Are learners in a world full of risks, harms and threats? Do we know the assets that students bring to the learning and are we prepared to provide the opportunities for transformative education?

Therefore, a FOCUS ON LEARNING involves the most deliberate activities, since we know that any learning is only fragile unless reinforced and integrated into further stages of learning. 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. Meanwhile, the learner is surrounded by others (family, a community, peers, a culture) who exerts their own practices, knowledge, values and ways of navigating the spoken and written word.

What I do encourage is diligence and vision, empathy and expertise, instruction and reflection because "the child's understanding is not achieved in an instance or a flash, but requires multifarious repetition in multifarious context." (Moyal-Sharrock, 2010, pg 6). Learning also requires closure (or reinforcements), since "learning is bound up with our embodiment, expectations, natural reactions, forms of life, and facts about our natural and social worlds.” (Affeldt, 2010, p. 276) 

The teacher must be able to recognise this and take into account a range of factors when assessing the suitability of the goals for instruction, of the instructional materials, of the instructional methods, of classroom/instructional management, of community and parental engagement, of the role of home language and multilingualism, and of the forms of the assessment to be used (Au, 1998). A teacher's expertise should be both technical and socio-cultural. As Macedo (2001) suggests, “reading specialists ... who have made technical advancement in the field of reading ... [must] make linkages between their self-contained technical reading methods and the social and political realities that generate unacceptably high failure reading rates among certain groups of students.” (pg xiii)



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Chall, J. S. (1996). Stages of reading development (2nd ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovic College Publishers.

Chall, J. S., Jacobs, V. A., & Baldwin, L. E. (1990). The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Macedo, D. (2001). Foreword. In P. Freire (Ed.), Pedagogy of freedom: ethics, democracy and civic courage (pp. xi – xxxii). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Moyal-Sharrock, D. (2010). Coming to Language: Wittgenstein’s Social “Theory” of Language Acquisition. In SOL Conference 6-8 May 2010. Bucharest.

Paris, S. G. (2005). Reinterpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 184–202. doi:10.1598/RRQ.40.2.3

Stahl, K. A. D. (2011). Applying new visions of reading development in today’s classroom. The Reading Teacher, 65(1), 52–56. Retrieved from visions.pdf

Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

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Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.