Effective Foundational Literacy Skill Instruction and PBL, Part 2

January 20, 2017

Alix Horton, NTN Literacy Coach

In part 1 of this mini-series, I briefly discussed the elements of quality foundational literacy instruction.

Effective foundational literacy instruction should be:

  • Sequenced and differentiated
  • Taught using a variety of techniques
  • Taught with other literacy skills
  • Connected to meaningful reading and writing


At this point, you might be thinking- “Ok, those principles are great, but now what- especially if I’m a teacher who’s trying to do Project Based Learning as well?”

In this post, I’d like to get to the “now what.”

So, how are you supposed to get to sequenced, differentiated, phonics instruction when you’re also doing PBL? Most likely, in order to effectively sequence and differentiate foundational literacy skill instruction, the instruction will need to happen alongside the project. While you may be able to pull it within the project periodically, you won’t always be able to do so. At the elementary level, that might mean that during your literacy block, you have a few dedicated stations for word work, spelling, and phonics. The other couple of stations could involve reading and writing for the project. At the secondary level, you might have a short amount of time a few times a week (say 10-15 minutes) dedicated to differentiated word work for your students. More advanced students might tackle Greek and Latin roots while you work with students on decoding skills. Or, you might do something similar to what elementary teachers do, and have a few virtual or physical stations, some related to the project, a couple focused on differentiated foundational literacy skill instruction. I did a combination of the two in both 5th and 10th grade. Three times a week, we started with differentiated groups focusing on spelling and phonics using Words Their Waymaterials (highly recommended!). In addition, I’d pull students or have students do virtual “stations” during project work time where they might, say, practice decoding multisyllabic words related to the project, or practice reading a text more than once, working on their fluency.

During that “alongside” time, you can use a variety of instructional methods to help students learn how do decode.  Words Their Way is an analytic and spelling approach to phonics, but I also taught students to use onsets and rimes (analogy phonics), and with a few students, who were just learning to read, I used a systematic, synthetic phonics program from Reading A-Z. Of course, occasionally you might be able to have students practice what they’re learning within the project: students might spell, use an analogy word, or other techniques to decode appropriate project vocabulary.

So we know that we’re not just hitting phonics all the time. What about teaching students all those other skills, and emphasizing the communicative purpose of reading and writing? This is where projects, and Project Based Learning, really come in handy. Projects are a great way to build students’ oral language, since they expose students to vocabulary repeatedly in connected and deep ways. At the early elementary level, you might build reading comprehension skills and oral language through read-alouds. At later levels, you might still have students practice comprehension skills with project texts, but simply up the amount of scaffolding you provide to help those students access the texts (like audiobook versions, chunked texts, text-embedded vocabulary support, etc.). I carefully considered how to ensure that students were supported in their speaking and listening skills in every project, used word walls and other techniques to develop vocabulary, and taught reading comprehension skills with project texts.

Don’t hold students back from reading and writing for the project, simply because they still need to work on foundational skills. You might ask kindergarten students to do a picture walk through a project related text or draw, dictate, and write for the project using invented spelling, or ask middle school English Language Learners to write a piece for a group magazine, even if their written communication skills are still being developed. Ask yourself, “Does this project give EVERY student the opportunity to read to answer their questions and learn more? Does this project give EVERY student the opportunity to communicate their learning via writing and, ideally, write for a meaningful audience?” You might carefully consider how to include an individual written task that’s purposeful to the project and gives all students the opportunity to see that literacy matters. I recently saw an individual writing task in a kinder project on composting which I just loved. Students created an infographic with a combination of drawing, dictating, and invented spelling. The purpose of the infographic was to help their fellow students determine what could be recycled vs. composted in the cafeteria. While those infographics certainly won’t be perfect, they’ll show the kindergarten students that writing has purpose and meaning.

The beauty of marrying PBL and foundational literacy skill instruction is that it allows us to build students’ understanding of the world and the communicative function of literacy, even as we address the foundational skills our students need to become thoughtful readers and writers.

This blog originally appeared on Literacy for Living.

This blog is part of our Top NTN Resources of 2017 list. You can view the entire list here.

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