Corwin Literacy editor Wendy Murray chatted with fourth-grade teacher Leslie Blauman and literacy coach Janiel Wagstaff, and six practices came up in conversation that can make a big difference in your students’ literacy achievement this year—and bring some needed joy back into teaching.
WM: First, kudos to you for being authors who work full- time in the classroom! It brings great credibility to your professional books. After many years teaching and pendulum swings, what would you say is the one constant truth about effective literacy teaching?
LB: Using best practices. Yes, the pendulum swings, but teaching students thinking strategies—based on the all the research we have on comprehension– is the constant. I teach my students to think as they read and write, and that it’s their own good minds that make each process come alive. They won’t remember a test score when they’re 30 years old, but they’ll remember that you challenged them to think and were the teacher that drew out and respected their ideas.
JW: Yes! I agree. Effective instruction is memorable instruction, and so my constant truth is that I strive to make reading and writing experiences relevant and engaging. With interest, motivation, and purpose, great things happen.
WM: You both are pretty masterful at building in time for talk, and it seems central to your students’ growth—and yet the standards for listening and speaking seem like lost-in-the-shuffle middle children! Why is oral language so important?
JW: Children in K-2 must have constant opportunities to talk. It helps them tease out their own thinking, hear what they know, and solidify their ideas. This is true for both reading and writing time. In my classroom we have routines for “talking-it-out” and my students use this time to plan, rehearse and draft writing, and summarize and reflect on reading. Children learn so much from hearing their peers talk, too.
LB: Yes, and sometimes I think talk gets crowded out of teachers’ plans because they don’t feel secure about it. Productive speaking and listening doesn’t just happen! As teachers we need to scaffold successful peer talk. My first few weeks of school are spent setting routines for talk. We practice, practice, practice.
WM: What advice do you have for teachers new to the field about how they can make their planning and teaching more potent day to day?
LB: The “P” word: purpose. Bottle it, and take a swig of it every now and then, and you’ll be fine! Seriously, each day, each lesson, we teachers need to know our purpose, and it’s got to be more meaningful than teaching a skill! Think about the difference to a child who comes in to class to hear his teacher say, “Turn to page 72 in your textbook and define the chapter’s vocabulary words,” and the child whose teacher greets the class by tossing each student a tea packet, and says, “Today, based on our reading, half of you are going to defend the Boston Tea Party as colonists, the other half are going to make a case for why the British had a right to see it as a punishable rebellion. Remember to use evidence from the text!”
Teachers need to “own” their plans, and be excited by them too! I do at least six units of study each year, and as I plan in summer, I know my final destination, and then “back-map” so I know what large units I need to teach and which weeks I can add “boosters” to meet student needs. Selecting great mentor texts takes me far, and saves time, so lean on the brilliance of published authors! I’ve found that plugging in writing units first, and then building the reading, speaking, listening, and language into the plans, allows me to meet the challenge.
WM: Janiel, how do best practices help you plan and teach with purpose?
JW: Best, research-based practices help me because by sticking with them, I’m not distracted by programs, fads, or pendulum swings. We know what works in early literacy, so that’s where I put my energy. I have a handful of sure-fire core practices that I go to again and again, and I couple these with instruction that is grounded in purposes my students find engaging, like researching and writing a newspaper article to share with the student body. The relevance is immediate to them, and that’s the key!
WM: So a less-is-more approach?
JW: Yes. Teachers can be so distracted by the volume of resources online, and it can result in random acts of teaching! Our teaching must be intentional. We need to ask ourselves: Why am I using this resource? How does it benefit my students? Am I being swayed by the “candy corn effect” of how darn sweet and cute it is? How does it fit with the other critical practices I know my students need to grow toward our most important learning targets? We need more resources that help us keep the “big rocks” in focus and that demonstrate how to integrate our practice to best effect.
WM: Okay, so here’s what I’m hearing you both assert are mighty important concepts for great literacy teaching: Using best practices, giving students time to talk and think; planning and teaching with an engaging purpose each day; using mentor texts—you each throw in one last one.
JW: Make sure the bulk of your time is spent with your sleeves rolled up, working alongside children.
LB: Expect each student to be brilliant, and they will be.