You are here


Big leap for literacy in schools

Push for in-depth reading demands new teaching methods and digital tools
  • Writer in the making? A student from Walker Elementary School, part of West Allis-West Milwaukee School District, is in the zone. Teachers in the district confer with each student to set individual literacy goals.
  • Digital writing: A St. Vrain Valley School District teacher oversees students using tablets in an English language arts class.
  • At Colonial School District, ELA teachers take part in professional development to learn such skills as scoring with a rubric for new standards.
  • A Red Hawk Elementary student from St. Vrain Valley Schools, top, gets help from a teacher.

Literacy changes taking hold in schools recognize the subject’s expansion from traditional textbooks to online readings, images and audio.

New learning standards ask students to read more closely and write more analytically, meaning teachers must adapt curriculum to get students reading earlier, says Jennifer Serravallo, International Literacy Association speaker and author of The Reading Strategies Book.

“The classic definition of literacy is ‘the ability to read and write,’” Serravallo says. “What educators have been puzzling over is what it means to read and write today.”

This spring, a middle school class in Colorado’s St. Vrain Valley School District read Passenger on the Pearl, a true story of a woman’s escape from slavery. Students created digital timelines, built fake Facebook pages for the characters and produced videos using iMovie to demonstrate learning and to further their own software skills. Students also Skyped with the book’s author.

“It increases student engagement immediately, and supports them with 21st century skills as they are responding in authentic, real-world ways,” says Kerin McClure, instructional coordinator of language arts at St. Vrain Valley.

The Common Core and other standards require districts to rework curriculum and expand literacy skills across all subjects. This includes emphasizing literacy in math, science and all other subjects.

At the International Literacy Association’s annual conference this month, experts and educators will offer guidance in developing rigorous literacy instruction. Some districts have already launched innovative programs that leverage digital platforms, reading specialists, professional development and parent engagement to build literacy curricula that get results.

“Just because this generation is connected doesn’t mean they have the skills, strategies and dispositions to use digital tools in a way that enhances literacy or learning,” says Bernadette Dwyer, a literacy association board member and expert on digital literacy tools.

Embracing the digital shift

St. Vrain Valley Schools, a district of some 32,000 students, redesigned its curriculum to fit Colorado Academic Standards, emphasizing digital books and media.

St. Vrain’s middle and high school students access the all-digital curriculum with 1-to-1 devices. Each year is broken into four modules for each grade level, with three different full-length book choices within each. At the elementary and secondary level, all students focus on an “anchor” text, and teachers can also chose to break students into smaller groups to read different books.

Some K3 English language learners are placed in biliteracy classrooms, which use the same text as English-only classes, but follow unit plans with built-in Spanish support. They also use small, leveled readers on the same topics—but in Spanish. ELL students and struggling readers in English-only classrooms are provided with scaffolded support and receive additional assistance in small groups.

“We’re trying to foster both student engagement and a deep passion about what they are reading, while making sure all students have access to the same high-quality instruction and texts,” McClure says.

Personalized learning

Digital literacy tools also have the ability to better personalize lessons for each student, with the goal of increasing achievement for struggling learners.

“We often develop curriculum for this mythical ‘average child,’ and then fix it for our other readers,” Dwyer says. “Digital tools allow us to anticipate the needs of these learners from the outset, support them through customization of the learning, and build in supports like text-to-speech and dictionary supports.”

Following the Common Core in Wisconsin means teachers at the urban West Allis-West Milwaukee School District introduce a curriculum that emphasizes data and leverages digital tools to differentiate learning. Teachers in the district use the Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) test to determine reading ability. Then, they confer with each student to identify needs and interests, and to set goals.

The approach has resulted in widespread improvement in reading scores, says Jill Ries, curriculum coordinator at West Allis-West Milwaukee schools.

Personalization has to be built into teaching on a daily basis to see results, Reis says. She recommends grouping students based on ability to better assess their needs in small groups. Doing so makes it easier to set personalized goals for each student.

Reading specialists

Districts also find success when reading specialists break out of their traditional roles of working with small groups or one-on-one with struggling students. More recently, the educators provide instructional coaching and develop and analyze assessments, says ILA Associate Executive Director Stephen Sye.

Reading specialists also help design literacy curricula and work with teachers in classrooms, for both coaching and co-teaching, he adds.

About three years ago, West Allis-West Milwaukee’s reading department implemented a collaborative approach: Reading specialists co-teach reading classes with teachers and lead professional development exercises. They don’t just work with struggling students.

“Those teachers are a bevy of knowledge—if they are holed up in a classroom with a small group of kids, we’re not giving them an opportunity to share their knowledge and be literacy leaders in their building,” Ries says.

Professional development needs

Creating a more rigorous literacy curriculum that produces results requires teacher training, Serravallo says.

“We’re seeing a trend toward over-assessment and under-teaching,” Serravallo says. “We need to help teachers develop a deep knowledge of learning strategies and reading development, so when teaching they can assess on the run in a more informal, formative way.”

Literacy PD is often not costly: Teachers can form professional learning communities within their district to share instructional methods and to review student work. Plenty of PD opportunities exist on social media, especially Twitter, Serravallo says. Leading educators post videos of themselves teaching and link to books they’ve written.

“It can be very low-cost—it just requires creativity and flexibility in terms of scheduling,” Serravallo adds.

One school she worked with gave teachers an extra 10 minutes per day for lunch four days of the week, so they could spend one full lunch period per week in PD.

Delaware’s Colonial School District reconfigured its elementary school language arts curriculum when the state adopted Common Core. The district was scheduled to adopt a new ELA textbook, but found that most publishers’ anthologies were still heavily focused on literature and were not yet aligned to the new standards.

Administrators turned to open educational resources for the informational texts required by the new standards, says Katie Gutowski, a language arts instructional coach at Colonial schools.

With the shift, administrators created one PD day per month. ELA teachers learn skills such as leading small-group instruction, scoring writing with a rubric, connecting Smarter Balanced assessments to instruction, and integrating Common Core state standards.

Beginning in 2016-17, the district will provide more extensive literacy PD at the elementary level, as it transitions from a traditional report card to a standards-based one that focuses on mastery of standards. The PD will provide deeper understanding of the standards in reading, writing, speaking and listening, says Franklin Read, director of curriculum and instruction at Colonial schools.

Parent engagement

Some literacy approaches are statewide: In 2014-15, 30 rural Kansas districts with low reading proficiency rates joined the Kansas Reading Roadmap initiative. The program is designed to improve third-grade reading proficiency.

Key to the program is encouraging parents to attend weekly sessions where they learn about their child’s reading progress. Parents also learn and take home activities they can perform with their children to help improve reading.

“It gives them opportunities to get more acquainted with the staff and the school,” says Cynda Jarrett, the coordinator of the multi-tiered system of supports program at Chetopa-St. Paul USD, a rural Kansas district that joined the initiative in 2014. “As parents become more knowledgeable and confident, they are more willing to embrace their role as promoters of reading.”

The University of Kansas evaluated the roadmap program for the 2014-15 school year. Data found that K3 students reading at benchmark improved 19 percent. And 37 percent fewer students were considered at risk of needing special education.

Researchers also found parents in the roadmap program were more involved and better understood how to help their children develop literacy skills.




myON is a personalized literacy environment that incorporates: A state-of-the art learning platform; Enhanced digital reading content; The Lexile® Framework; Cutting-edge literacy tools; Embedded metrics to monitor activity and growth

Lexia Reading Core5


Platform provides systematic personalized learning in six areas of reading instruction, and delivers performance data and assessment without interrupting the flow of learning. Designed to meet Common Core and other state standards.



An interactive, multidimensional solution for pre-K through 12 educators to improve engagement, comprehension, vocabulary and literacy. Textbooks, e-books and other resources are supplemented with core content from video providers, Google Maps, library collections and

OverDrive e-books


A digital distributor of e-books with more than 2 million titles from 5,000 publishers to support curriculum and instruction goals. The OverDrive team works with districts to tailor digital content to priorities and resources.


Achieve 3000

Software offers online differentiated instruction that includes lessons at 12 levels of English and seven levels of Spanish. Designed to engage learners at their individual reading level, accelerate reading gains, boost mastery of state standards and improve performance on high-stakes tests.

Reading Horizons Discovery

Reading Horizons

Provides teacher training and scripted instructional materials. Interactive software adjusts to the needs and skill level of each student. Students can work at their own pace and learn skills to decrease errors in reading, spelling and pronunciation.

Wonders Balanced Literacy

McGraw Hill Education

A digital program for K5 educators offering the ability to create unique instructional paths and to customize program recommendations. Includes complex, authentic texts and a focus on close reading and text evidence to provide rigorous instruction.

Alison DeNisco is news editor.