Literacy Best Practices for an Elementary Classroom

September 13, 2016

New Tech Network’s goal is to ensure that every student graduates ready for college, career, and civic life, and literacy skills are essential to readiness in every arena. More specifically, students need to be able to synthesize information from a variety of texts and communicate via writing for a variety of purposes. In order to reach such a goal, we believe it’s important to begin students’ apprenticeship into rich reading and writing lives in early elementary.

This raises the question of the kinds of elementary practices necessary to enable such a learning trajectory. At its core, NTN believes that early literacy instruction needs to undergo an adaptive shift, from atomized, isolated, disconnected skill based teaching, to rich and purposeful literacy instruction where students use skills for meaningful purposes and what they’re doing is connected to important work. Naturally, connecting literacy instruction to the project and problem-based work happening in the classroom ensures that it’s meaningful and purposeful.

Foundational Skills

The teaching of foundational skills such as phonemic awareness, decoding, fluency, and spelling may require the biggest adaptive shift. Foundational skills instruction often follows and is narrowed by assessments such as DIBELS, and as a result may emphasize rote drills, nonsense words, etc. (Goodman, 2006). While some practices may still be appropriate, NTN believes that, whenever possible, foundational skill building should be connected to meaningful texts and content. For example, students might use vocabulary from a project to learn a particular word family or create their own books on project topics using the same families (perhaps using shared writing or invented spellings). Instruction might follow a whole part whole format, where students learn particular sound-spelling relationships after hearing them in a rhyming book that uses the pattern and then use the same relationship in their own writing (see, for example, Smith et al, 2004). Spelling instruction should be inquiry-based and support students in understanding the meaning and spelling patterns of English instead of relying on rote memorization (Schlagal, 2013). While it may not always be realistic to teach foundational skills within the project, they can be taught alongside the project, meaning that skills are reinforced separately and then concepts are connected back to project topics whenever possible.

Reading and Writing Skills

Other reading and writing skills, such as reading comprehension instruction, for example, should be taught within the context of a project or problem whenever possible. This ensures that children are reading and writing in order to learn important content and in order to communicate with each other and to real audiences. Such contextualized instruction aligns with best practices in creating writing programs, such as writing to learn, writing for real audiences, and writing within a positive and collaborative environment to (Graham and Harris, 2013). It also aligns with best practices in supporting reading comprehension, such as ensuring texts and 2

contexts for reading are motivating to students, connecting reading and writing, and building schema and background knowledge around and through reading (Duke et al, 2011).

Reading Level FrameworksAn Adaptive Shift

A key challenge in integrating literacy instruction into PBL is the use of reading programs that rely heavily on leveled texts. While some practices in these programs may be connected to meaningful and purposeful work, others are not. In addition, most, if not all, reading materials will not be related to the project topic students may be addressing at any particular time, making it difficult to connect literacy skill instruction to problem or project work. These leveled reading programs rely on a framework initially proposed by Betts in 1946 which requires using assessments to determine a student’s independent, instructional, and frustration text levels, and advocates teaching students in the instructional range. Research has since found that the framework is too simplistic. Students can, for example, read texts that are beyond their so-called instructional reading level if they’re interested in the topic, and the notion that texts of a certain level will cause students to feel frustrated hasn’t been supported by research (Halladay, 2012). As a result, we advocate a more nuanced approach, which asks students to read various levels of texts for various purposes at different times. This allows for practices such as small group guided reading instruction to be more flexible and allows for the integration of project-related texts. However, such a shift in practice may require a different set of materials, which may take time and resources.

Ultimately, NTN believes that literacy instruction at the elementary level should allow students to practice important literacy skills in a meaningful and real-world context. However, this kind of instruction not only requires new materials but will require an adaptive shift of teachers and schools, necessitating that foundational skills instruction be connected to meaningful text and reading and writing instruction is contextualized and real-world. Enabling these kinds of adaptive and technical shifts will ensure that our students are prepared for the information synthesis and communication tasks they’ll be doing in college and career.


Duke, N.K., Billman, A.K., Pearson, P.D., and S.L. Strachan. (2011). Essential elements of fostering and teaching reading comprehension. In S.J. Samuels and A.E. Farstrup (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (5593). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Goodman, K. (2006). A critical review of DIBELS. In K. Goodman (Ed.), The truth about DIBELS: What it is, what it does (140). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Graham, S. and Harris, K (2013). Designing an effective writing program. In S. Graham, C.A.

MacArthur, and J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Best practices in writing instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Halladay, J. (2012). Revisiting key assumptions of the reading level framework. The Reading Teacher, 66 (1), 5362.

Schlagal, B. (2013). Best practices in spelling and handwriting. In S. Graham, C.A. MacArthur, and J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Best practices in writing instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Smith, M., Walker, B.J., and Yellin, D. (2004). From phonological awareness to fluency in each lesson. The Reading Teacher, 55 (3), 302307.

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