Saturday / April 13

Strategies to Support the Development of Early Literacy Skills

Teaching Reading

By Mark Weakland

To help young students develop early literacy skills, embrace the concept of the brain dictionary. Imagine an old school dictionary: a hefty tome containing every word in the English language. Each dictionary entry gives the correct word spelling, pronunciation (sound) and definition (meaning). Our brain dictionaries, which we use for reading and writing, are built of the same components: spelling, sound, and meaning.

Reading (and writing) requires a brain stocked with thousands of words. Each word is associated with a correct letter sequence, pronunciation, and definition. Fluent readers automatically recognize a printed word when it is a stored brain word. During that recognition, a web of spelling, sound, and meaning is activated.

Knowing that building brain dictionaries is important, I offer three suggestions for creating lessons that incorporate spelling, sound, and meaning.

Teach lessons that integrate spelling and phonics.  Think sponics – a fun term I use to describe integrated spelling (encoding) and phonics (decoding). For example, have students do a word ladder, changing one word into another one letter at a time (sat-sit-sip-lip-lap-flap-flip). This connects sound and spelling. Explicitly give vocabulary definitions and you infuse meaning, too. Next, have your students read the completed word ladder bottom to top and then top to bottom. Viola! You’ve taught a lesson that uses spelling, sound, and meaning.

Use repeated reading. Repeated reading builds the neural constructs of words and is a time-tested way to strengthen the brain dictionary. Think both guided repeated reading and independent repeated reading. Pick a previously read book or a passage and do an I Read – We Read – You Read sequence (Model – Choral Read – Echo Read). Then, during supported independent reading time, allow students to re-read the book sprawled in a comfy chair, with a paintbrush, or sitting on a carpet square with a buddy.

Do an interactive read aloud. Interactive read alouds are wonders of integrated teaching: they build language and background information, teach genre and grammar, and strengthen skills such as listening, questioning, and synthesizing. Pick a book that fosters discussion and contains rich vocabulary, read it aloud, and as you read comment on words and ask thought provoking questions. Explicitly point out the spelling of an occasional word and you’ll be touching on all components of the brain dictionary.

Engage in Language-Expanding Conversations

By Maria Walther

A first-grade class bopping down the hallway in a squiggly line suddenly stops. Their teacher, Mr. Hudson, gathers them in front of a bulletin board to sit and chat. For the next few minutes, Mr. Hudson guides their conversations with these questions:

  • What do you notice about this bulletin board?
  •  Are any of the stories familiar to you?
  •  Why do you suppose some kids wrote on gloves and others wrote on mittens?
  •  If you lost a mitten, what do you imagine might happen to it?
  • Which do you prefer—gloves or mittens?

As the first graders converse among themselves (quietly because they’re in the hallway!), Mr. Hudson listens in, clarifies, and extends students’ responses.

In this impromptu learning event, these first graders are having what I call a language-expanding conversation. Building on his students’ natural curiosity, Mr. Hudson drew out and expanded their oral language one question at a time. His questions prompted learners to notice, wonder, make connections from known to new, add details, and make comparisons— while simultaneously building the thinking processes they need to comprehend texts.

Language-expanding conversations can happen throughout your teaching day, but my go-to prompt for these conversations is a picture book. Whether you’re reading aloud or engaged in a shared reading interaction, intentionally building your students’ oral language and listening comprehension will provide a stronger foundation for reading comprehension. What might a language-expanding conversation sound like with a picture book? Let’s look at how you might use the five question types while reading Anne Wynter and Oge Mora’s noisy, cumulative story Everybody in the Red Brick Building. If you’re not familiar with this book, you can find it read aloud by the author here.

Notice: “What do you notice?” is an open-ended question you can ask across the day. In this particular book, display the cover and invite students to notice any details they see. You will want to return to the cover after reading the book to notice that all of the characters you meet in the book appear on the cover.

Wonder: One way to invite wonder is by asking students to predict what they think might happen next in the story. There are many points in this story to pause and predict.

Make Connections from Known to New: This book offers endless opportunities for students to make connections. Ask questions such as, Have you ever…

… heard a crying baby?

… played flashlight tag?

… listened to the sounds of a street sweeper?

How do these experiences help you to better understand the book?

Add Details: This book is bursting with onomatopoeias. Invite students to share the noises they would add to the story.

Make Comparisons: When I first read Everybody in the Red Brick Building it reminded me of The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood. Sharing and comparing two similar texts helps young readers better comprehend the complexity of ideas.

Now it’s your turn—stop by a bulletin board, take a walk outside, gather your students together to read aloud. Expand their oral language one experience at a time!

Support Early Biliteracy Will the Four Pillars of Dual Language Education

By Joan Lachance and Andrea Honigsfeld 

By design, many dual language programs are based on a partnership between and among two or more educators who come to the practice with language, literacy and cultural knowledge and skills in their respective languages and combine their expertise through regular collaboration and co-planning. At other times, dual language teachers forge additional partnerships and collaborate with English Language Development (ELD) teachers who may provide additional language instruction, or special educators (such as OT/PT providers, speech-language pathologists, and other support personnel) who may offer in-class support to ensure that students’ complex academic, linguistic, sociocultural, and social-emotional needs are met.

Across all the dual language partnership configurations, collaboration in dual language programs is vital. Effective collaboration calls for both commitment and healthy risk-taking in the interest of promoting biliteracy development, beginning at the onset of early biliteracy in pre-K and elementary dual language programs. We rely on the four pillars of dual language education to serve as the solid foundation on which high-quality dual language programs are built from the start.

With the four pillars as the foundation, collaborating dual language teachers will also be significantly more effective when they each have a basic understanding of the partner languages’ oracy and literacy patterns, including early biliteracy development with emerging readers and writers. In dual language settings, collaborative planning obliges informed conversations regarding both program languages’ literacy patterns in the early stages of biliteracy for various language functions and sociocultural dimensions of communication. For example, in English, students are often taught from the stages of early literacy development to “get straight to the point” in their productive domains of oracy and writing. Collaboration for dual language learners shifts practices toward developing holistic biliteracy with a heavy emphasis using linguistic resources from both languages while speaking, reading, writing, engaging with and interpreting text materials. Ultimately, it’s essential that early biliteracy development showcases rich linguistic repertoires for students’ learning to develop early-on in culturally decorated and multidimensional patterns (Collier & Thomas, 2009; NCEL, 2022).

Written by

Mark Weakland is a consultant, teacher, writer, and musician living in western Pennsylvania. His most recent professional book is How to Prevent Reading Difficulties, Grades PreK-3: Proactive Practices for Teaching Young Children to Read. Mark is the creator of teacher resource books, nationally-presented seminars and workshops on literacy topics, award-winning music projects, and more than 70 books for children. Visit his website ( and YouTube channel (Mark Weakland Literacy); follow him on Twitter @MarkWeakland.

Maria Walther taught first grade for 34 years and now enjoys working alongside educators in their classrooms. She is the author of The Ramped-Up Read Aloud (Corwin, 2019) and Shake Up Shared Reading (Corwin, 2022). She can be reached at

Dr. Joan Lachance is an Associate Professor of Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She directs the TESL graduate programs and undergraduate TESL Minor. She is the co-author of the National Dual Language Education Teacher Preparation Standards and the Director of the CAEP Specialized Program Association in Dual Language Education called “EMMA: Education for a Multilingual Multicultural America.” Her most recent book is Collaboration and Co-Teaching for Dual Language Learners.

Dr. Andrea Honigsfeld is TESOL professor in the School of Education and Human Services at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, NY. She has published extensively on working with English language learners and has been presenting at conferences across the United States and internationally. She is the co-author of Collaboration and Co-Teaching for Dual Language Learners.


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