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Teaching Reading K-2: A Library of Classroom Practices

Lens on Literacy

We all agree that learning to read is a critical step in a child’s education. But teaching children to read is controversial. In classrooms, legislatures, universities, school districts — even courtrooms — there is debate about what makes a good literacy program. Is phonics the answer? Whole language? A mix of both?

Amid the controversy, it can be difficult to know how to approach literacy instruction. In developing this video library, we focused on “what works” by featuring the instruction of exemplary teachers who, year after year, successfully teach students to read. Collectively, these teachers represent a range of teaching styles and practices. Each teacher’s instruction, crafted to meet the needs of individual students, blends the best from different approaches. These teachers show, by way of example, that there is not one way to teach reading.

As you watch the videos, use the Observational Checklist (PDF), to help you focus on the important aspects of a literacy classroom. The Literacy Teaching Practices you’ll see require varying levels of teacher support, from more (as in read-aloud) to less (as in independent reading). Each practice addresses one or more of the Essential Components of Literacy Development, which we’ve adapted from the findings of the National Reading Panel.

Essential Components of Literacy Development

(Note: These components are listed in order of development, from beginner to more advanced.)

Oral Language
A fundamental element of literacy is the development of oral language. Teachers encourage students’ language development through informal and guided conversation, by asking questions, and by providing opportunities for students to explain their learning or thinking. Teachers model and discuss vocabulary and formal English grammar while reading, writing, or sharing experiences, without correcting or evaluating students’ speech patterns.

Phonological Awareness
Developing literacy requires an awareness that the spoken language can be taken apart in many different ways: sentences broken into words, words divided into syllables (sis/ter), and syllables divided into smaller, individual sounds (phonemes) such as /c/ /a/ /t/. Words can also be separated into onsets and rimes /c/ /at/. Phonological awareness includes knowledge of rhyming, alliteration (hearing similarity of sounds, as in “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”), and intonation.

Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness is one small part of phonological awareness. Spoken words are made up of individual sounds (phonemes) that can be heard and manipulated. For example, the word for has three phonemes, help has four; cane has three phonemes, as does same or make. Phonemic awareness activities include listening for, counting, and identifying distinct sounds (not letter names); hearing, matching, adding, chopping off, or rearranging sounds; and separating or blending sounds to make words. Phonemic awareness can be taught explicitly or indirectly through games, manipulative activities, chanting, and reading and singing songs and poems.

Word Study
Word study includes both vocabulary/concepts and word identification/phonics.

Sometimes referred to as sound/symbol connections, or graphophonics, phonics is the understanding of how letters or spelling patterns (graphemes) represent sounds of speech (phonemes). It involves awareness of the sounds of individual letters or letter combinations. Phonics requires the understanding that sounds can be blended to make a word, and a mastery of some rules about certain sound patterns. Phonics can be taught in many ways. All learners do not require the same amount or sequence of phonics instruction. Phonics should be balanced with instruction on language and meaning. A student may be able to sound out a word, but not understand its meaning. In order to read with accuracy and understanding, words to be read must be part of a student’s oral language.

Word Identification
This refers to the strategies or skills readers use to figure out words when reading and spelling. In this video library, word identification includes phonic analysis, structural analysis, context clues, sight word recognition, use of configuration, and picture clues. Strategies readers use to identify words:

  • Recognizing or identifying whole words that follow irregular spelling patterns (sometimes called “sight words”), like have, their, or of; recognizing high-frequency words that appear in early texts, like and, for, and this.
  • Using configuration clues. Sometimes the distinct shapes of words can help readers figure them out. Elephant is a long word, and unusual in its shape; up is a little word. Because many words have the same shape, readers cannot rely solely on configuration.
  • Recognizing the formation of words (also called morphology or structural analysis). Beginning readers need to be taught to identify and understand the meaning of word parts — roots, prefixes, and suffixes. For example, begin with simple words such as play and play-ing, and then move to more complex words like agree and dis-agree-ment.
  • Using context clues. Good readers think about the meaning of what they are reading and use their understanding of the surrounding words, sentences, or even paragraphs to help them read an unfamiliar word
  • For English language learners, using cognates, words that are similar in two languages. Sometimes this strategy needs to be explicitly encouraged, as English language learners may not use cognates spontaneously.

The process of “arranging ideas to form a clear and unified impression and to create an effective message” is composition (The Literacy Dictionary, IRA. 1995, p. 38). In this video library, teachers help young writers develop and write down their ideas to convey a message to an audience. Purposes for writing include describing, sharing feelings and thoughts, expressing opinions, and creating a story or narrative.

Finding and constructing meaning in a text is the reason for reading. If readers can read the words but do not understand what they are reading, they are not really reading. Comprehension comes from engaging with ideas and constructing a sense of the whole. Students who are good at monitoring their comprehension know when they understand what they read and when they do not. Research shows that instruction, even in the early grades, can help students become better at monitoring their comprehension and developing strategies to build understanding. Explicit modeling and instruction can help students be aware of what they do understand; identify what they do not understand; and use appropriate “fix-up” strategies to resolve problems in comprehension.

Teachers build students’ comprehension by predicting, asking questions, helping students access background knowledge, and making connections during read-alouds, shared reading, or in guided-reading groups. (Adapted from Put Reading First, The Partnership for Reading. 2001, pp. 48-49.)

Vocabulary encompasses the words we must know to communicate effectively, including oral or reading vocabulary. Oral vocabulary includes words we use when speaking or words we recognize when listening. Reading vocabulary includes words we recognize or use in print. Students learn the meanings of most words indirectly through their experiences and conversations with each other and adults in school and their communities. They also develop vocabulary as they read on their own and listen to adults read aloud. In this video library, teachers help students develop reading and oral vocabulary during read-alouds or shared and guided reading, and other carefully designed activities. (Adapted from Put Reading First, pp. 34-35.)

Fluency is the ability to read text accurately and quickly. During silent reading, fluent readers recognize words automatically and group them so they can understand what they read. Fluent readers do not concentrate on decoding words. Instead they focus their attention on what the text means. In short, fluent readers recognize and comprehend words at the same time and their reading is effortless and expressive. Shared reading with the teacher and classmates, and repeated readings of text as in Readers’ Theater, help beginning readers develop fluency. (Adapted from Put Reading First, pp. 22 and 24).

Fast, effortless, and accurate word recognition grows out of repetition and practice. Automaticity does not refer to reading with expression or evidence of comprehension. Games and activities using lists of high frequency words, personal word lists, and word walls help students develop automaticity. Automaticity allows a student to concentrate more on other aspects of reading, such as comprehension. (Adapted from Put Reading First, pp. 22 and 24).

For further reference
Armbruster, B. B., F. Lehr, and J. Osborn. Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children To Read. Jessup, Md: National Institute for Literacy, 2001.

Harris, T. L., and R. E. Hodges. eds. The Literacy Dictionary. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 1995.

Savage, J. F. Sound It Out: Phonics in a Balanced Reading Program. Boston, Mass.: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2001.

Vacca, J. L., R. T. Vacca, and M. K. Gove. Reading and Learning To Read 4th ed. Boston, Mass: Addison Wesley, 2000.

Yopp, H. K., and R. H. Yopp. “Supporting Phonemic Awareness Development in the Classroom.” The Reading Teacher 54, no. 2 (2000): 130-143.

Zarillo, J. J. Ready for RICA: A Test Preparation Guide for California’s Reading Instruction Competence Assessment. Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Literacy Teaching Practices

(Note: These practices are listed in order of independence on the part of the student, from less to more, first for reading, then for writing.)

In read-aloud, the teacher reads to the whole class, building on students’ existing skills while introducing different types of literature and new concepts. Read-aloud models fluent and expressive reading, develops comprehension and critical thinking strategies — including the ability to make connections, visualize stories, and formulate questions — and builds listening skills. A read-aloud can be conducted without interruption, or the teacher can pause to ask questions and make observations.

Shared Reading
In shared reading, the teacher leads the class in reading or chanting a text — a book, poem, or message on a chart — that is often enlarged for the whole class to see. Shared reading allows students to observe the reading process and to practice reading strategies or concepts in the safety of a group. The same enlarged text is read and reread several times over a few days. Initially the teacher takes the lead, and then gradually pulls back as students progressively master the text. In each reading, children are encouraged to focus on or discover new concepts about print.

Guided Reading
In guided reading, the teacher guides small groups of students in reading short, carefully chosen texts in order to build independence, fluency, comprehension skills, and problem-solving strategies. The teacher often begins by introducing the text and modeling a particular strategy. Then students read to themselves in quiet voices as the teacher listens in, noting strategies and obstacles, and cuing individual students as needed. Students then discuss content, and share problem-solving strategies. Guided-reading materials usually become increasingly challenging and are often read more than once. The teacher regularly observes and assesses students’ changing needs, and adjusts groupings accordingly. Guided reading allows a teacher to provide different levels of support, depending on the needs of the students.

Guided Reading/ Instructional Reading Level
At the guided reading/instructional reading level, students read with some classroom instruction and teacher support, and approach new texts with some independence. Although criteria vary, 95% word-identification accuracy and 60% to 70% comprehension are typical standards for judging whether a student is reading at this level.

Independent Reading
In independent reading, students read books on their own, exploring different kinds of texts and applying new learning. Students should be able to read these books easily, without assistance. In this video library, students often choose their reading materials, but independent reading can be organized by leveled book baskets or recommendations from the teacher. Teachers confer individually with students during independent reading or model their own silent reading. Independent reading is sometimes called DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).

Independent Reading Level
At the independent reading level, students read with little or no support from the teacher, and independently solve problems while reading for meaning. Although criteria vary, 95% to 100% word-identification accuracy and 80% comprehension are typical standards for judging whether a student is reading at this level.

Interactive Writing
In interactive writing, the teacher helps groups of students compose and write text together, usually on large chart paper. With guidance from the teacher, individual students take turns writing, as classmates offer ideas and suggestions. Students practice writing strategies and skills modeled by the teacher, including letter formation, phonemic awareness and phonics, and concepts about print. Interactive writing is sometimes called “sharing the pen.”

Independent Writing
In independent writing, students write about literature or other topics on their own. In this video library, students write and illustrate creative stories or journal entries on topics of their own choosing. Often followed by a time to share written work with a partner or with the whole class, independent writing allows students to be recognized as authors and to receive feedback.

Elements of Classroom Environment

Physical Space
Physical space refers to the arrangement of the classroom (furniture and wall space) and the organization of materials that support literacy and encourage independence in students. The classroom arrangement can encourage varied encounters with print and facilitate large and small group conversations (in a library area, comfortable reading spaces, meeting area with easel, or literacy centers). The wall space can display attractive, organized, environmental print that reflects students’ lives and backgrounds. Placing students’ artwork and writing on the walls give students ownership in their classroom. Reading and writing materials can be arranged to be inviting and accessible.

Materials and Tools
Materials and tools are the objects and print materials used to engage students in literacy activities. Examples include the following: word walls that foster word recognition and correct spelling; an attendance chart that builds name recognition and initial letter identification; work boards or job charts that allow students to move independently through tasks; enlarged poetry or other charts that model reading strategies and encourage independent practice; pointers for reading that help students attend to and build concepts about print; and stamp pads and letter cubes that help students practice building words.

Techniques and Management Practices
Classroom routines, organizational techniques, and management practices can establish a productive learning environment that promotes literacy while also encouraging student independence and community responsibility. Examples include daily attendance using a pocket chart with students’ names to encourage responsibility for checking in while building name recognition and letter awareness; daily morning meetings that provide opportunities for language development and for specific instruction in reading and writing; classroom jobs; and opportunities for student leadership of daily routines.

Tone and Atmosphere
The tone and atmosphere of a classroom are conveyed through the teacher’s voice, word choice, body language, and physical positioning, as well as through the arrangement of the room and organization of classroom routines. The tone and atmosphere can communicate the following: the belief that all students can learn and are capable of taking responsibility; enthusiasm for all forms of literacy; the clear purpose of each instructional activity; a clarity of expectations; an appreciation of individual differences; and responsiveness and flexibility. A teacher sitting next to the students on the floor, or helping shy students communicate their work through drawings are situations that create such an inclusive atmosphere.

Other Important Terms

Concepts About Print
Coined by New Zealand educator Marie Clay, concepts about print (CAP) refers to what emergent readers need to understand about how printed language works and how it represents language. Successful beginning readers develop concepts about print at an early age, building on emergent literacy that starts before formal schooling.

  • Print carries a message. Even when a child “play reads” text using pictures and memory, the child demonstrates an understanding of this concept, even if she cannot read the words, or reads them backwards or front to back.
  • Books are organized, with a cover, title, and author, and reading in English flows in a particular and consistent direction, left to right and top to bottom. When young students successfully point to or otherwise track the print as someone reads aloud, they demonstrate their understanding of orientation and directionality.
  • Printed language consists of letters, words, and sentences. The emergent reader gradually learns to distinguish between these forms, learns the concepts of “beginning” and “end,” and understands punctuation that marks text (e.g., period, comma, and question mark).
  • Recognition of matching or upper- and lower-case letters, as well as some common spelling sequences, are slightly more complex concepts of print mastered by more experienced beginning readers.

Concepts about print can be taught using shared reading of Big Books, enlarged charts and poems, or other kinds of engaging texts. It can also be taught through interactive writing, language experience dictations, or exploring print in the classroom environment.

Many teachers use Clay’s Concepts About Print assessment tool in late kindergarten or beginning first grade to assess students’ concepts about print.

Cuing Strategies
Used by effective readers to figure out unfamiliar words and to make meaning, cuing strategies include knowledge of syntax, semantics, words and word meaning, and graphophonics (letter/sound associations). Teachers can guide students to use cuing strategies by reminding them to ask themselves, “Did it sound right? Did it make sense? Did the word look right?”

English Language Learner
An English language learner (ELL) is a student who speaks one or more languages other than English and who is just developing proficiency in English. In this video library, both dual language learning and careful scaffolding of literacy experiences in English enhance ELL students’ learning of oral and written English.

Invented (or Temporary) Spelling
A child’s attempt at spelling a word using what they know about the English spelling system is referred to as invented or temporary spelling. Invented spelling allows emergent writers to explore written language and experiment with writing at a very early stage. Early writing is a valuable developmental indicator of the conventional spelling patterns and the sound/symbol relationships the child has internalized. It can be used to help the teacher’s instruction. (Adapted from Literacy Dictionary, p. 128)

Metacognition is the awareness individuals have of their own mental processes and the subsequent ability to monitor, regulate, and direct themselves to a desired end. A student demonstrates metacognition if she can articulate what strategies she used to read and understand a text. Metacognition helps readers monitor and control their comprehension on an ongoing basis and adjust their reading strategies to maximize comprehension. (Adapted from The Literacy Dictionary, p. 128) (See Self-Monitor.)

Coined by Ken Goodman in the mid 1960s, a miscue is any departure from the text when reading orally. Use of miscue instead of “error” suggests that mistakes are not random, but occur when the reader tries to use different strategies to make sense of text, and emphasizes that not all errors are equal — some errors represent more highly developed reading skills than others. Miscues can be analyzed to suggest what strategies the reader is using or lacking, and what kinds of additional instruction might be helpful. (See Miscue Analysis.)

Miscue Analysis
Miscue analysis is a way of closely observing, recording, and analyzing oral reading behaviors to assess how the reader is using specific cuing strategies, like the use of syntax, semantic information, and graphophonics. The teacher uses a specific code to record actual reading. Miscue analysis is usually done with an unfamiliar, long text, followed by a taped retelling. Scoring and analysis is more complex than with a running record, and is usually done at a later time. While running records are most often used with beginning readers, miscue analysis can be used for more advanced readers.

Onset and Rime
Most words and many syllables can be separated into onsets (the initial consonant sound such as /c/ in cat) and rimes or phonograms (the vowel and letters which follow, such as /-at/). Whole words can be separated into onsets and rimes, such as “/f/ /-or/,” as can syllables, such as /”tr/ /-ans/ /f/ /-orm/. Some words and syllables have only rimes, such as “/on/” or “/-ing/”.

Print-Rich Environment
A print-rich environment refers to classroom displays of written language — both teacher-made, student-generated, and published materials — like books, charts, students’ work journals, and stories. A print rich-environment helps students acquire concepts about print as they learn how print is used. Students can “read the room.” For example, the calendar, lunch menu, list of classroom jobs, or the morning message all emphasize that print carries meaning. Students can refer to print displays to help their reading and spelling. (Adapted from Ready for RICA, pp. 27-28)

Running Record
A running record (RR) is a method for closely observing and assessing a student’s oral reading of a complete story or book, or 150-300 words excerpted from a longer text. Running records can be taken spontaneously on the fly without advance preparation, using whatever text the student happens to be reading; or they can be taken using a photocopy of a prepared text. Running records differ from miscue analysis because they are simpler to use on a day-to-day basis in the classroom.

Running records can be used to assess familiar text for accuracy and fluency. Or they may be used with new texts to see how the student applies reading strategies. Running records may be taken weekly or monthly to document growth over time, or periodically (two or three times a year ) as part of an assessment profile to place students in reading groups or to document progress along specific benchmarks.

To take a running record, the teacher sits close enough to see the text as the student reads aloud and uses a special code to mark the precise reading response. Without comment, the teacher marks a check for each word read accurately and notes any substitutions, omissions, additions, and self-corrections. This process usually takes about 10 minutes, but it may take less time with an emergent reader.

At the end of the reading, the teacher quickly totals the number of miscues and self-corrections, then calculates the rate of reading accuracy and self-correction. The calculation helps the teacher determine whether reading material is at an appropriate level and what subsequent texts might be chosen. The teacher can also analyze the types of miscues made on the RR to understand what reading strategies the child uses and what kinds of additional instruction might be helpful.

Students self-monitor when they pay attention to their own work to make sure that it is clear and makes sense. During reading, students attend to meaning and use fix-up strategies such as re-reading or reading ahead to clarify meaning. During writing, students check and reflect on the clarity of the message and on the features of text (words, grammar, and conventions) they need to communicate effectively with an audience. In this video library, students self-monitor during interactive writing when they discuss and analyze their writing, and during independent writing when they check for meaning and grammar. Students also self-monitor during shared and guided reading when they think aloud to share their understanding of a text with the teacher or with other students. Self-monitoring is an aspect of metacognition. (Adapted from The Literacy Dictionary, p. 229)

Word Walls
A word wall is made up of carefully selected and displayed lists or groups of words used by students to build familiarity with common sight words. They serve as visual scaffolds, provide students with familiar word patterns to assist them in decoding unfamiliar words, and are useful when students write. Word walls do the following:

  • build word recognition;
  • facilitate word analysis;
  • serve as a reference for commonly misspelled words; and
  • build vocabulary for a new text or content area.

Word walls are used by students and teachers to see and monitor what has been taught and learned. They are used for planned instruction and as a resource for unplanned instructional opportunities, or “teachable moments,” that arise unexpectedly during the day. (Adapted from Brabham, E. G., and S. K. Villaume. “Building Walls of Words.” Reading Teacher 54 no. 7 (April 2001): 700-702.

For further reference

Armbruster, B. B., F. Lehr, and J. Osborn. Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children To Read. Jessup, Md: National Institute for Literacy, 2001.

Harris, T. L., and R. E. Hodges. eds. The Literacy Dictionary. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 1995.

Vacca, J. L., R. T. Vacca, and M. K. Gove. Reading and Learning To Read. 4th Ed. Boston, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 2000.

Zarillo, J. J. Ready for RICA: A Test Preparation Guide for California’s Reading Instruction Competence Assessment. Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 2002.

General Resources on Literacy

Books and Articles:

Armbruster, B. B., F. Lehr, and J. Osborn. Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children To Read. Jessup, Md: National Institute for Literacy, 2001.

Button, K., M. J. Johnson, and P. Furgerson. “Interactive Writing in a Primary Classroom.” The Reading Teacher 49, no. 6 (1996).

Campbell, R. Read-Alouds with Young Children. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 2001.

Cary, S. Second Language Learners. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 1997.

Fields, M. V., and K. L. Spangler. Let’s Begin Reading Right: A Developmental Approach to Emergent Literacy. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill Publishing Company, 2000.

Fisher, B., and E. F. Medvic. Perspectives on Shared Reading: Planning and Practice. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2000.

Hall, N. “Interactive Writing with Young Children.” Childhood Education 76, no. 6, International Focus Issue (2000): 358-64.

Heald-Taylor, G. The Beginning Reading Handbook: Strategies for Success. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2001.

Henry, J., and B. J. Wiley. “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Interactive Writing.” Classroom Connections. Columbus, Ohio: Reading Recovery Council of North America, Inc. Winter/Spring 1999.

International Reading Association. Second Language Literacy Instruction: A Position Statement of the International Reading Association. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 2000.

Miller, W. Strategies for Developing Emergent Literacy. Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2000.

Neuman, S. B., C. Copple, and S. Bredekamp. Learning To Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2000.

Opitz, M. F., and M. P. Ford. Reaching Readers: Flexible & Innovative Strategies for Guided Reading. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2001.

Opitz, M. F., and T. V. Rasinski. Goodbye Round Robin: 25 Effective Oral Reading Strategies. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1998.

Parkes, B. Read It Again: Revisiting Shared Reading. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2000.

Rigg, P., and V. G. Allen. When They Don’t All Speak English: Integrating the ESL Student into the Regular Classroom. Urbana, Ill.: National Association of Teachers of English, 1989.

Strickland, D.S. Teaching Phonics Today: A Primer for Educators. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 1998.

Strickland, D. S. ed. Beginning Reading and Writing. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, and Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, 2000.

Taberski, S. “Give Shared Reading the Attention It Deserves.” Instructor-Primary 107, no. 7 (1998): 32-34.

Web sites

International Reading Association

National Council of Teachers of English

National Association of Education of Young Children

Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Ability (CIERA)