Literacy Best Practices and the NTN Elementary Model

November 16, 2016

Alix Horton

Alix Horton, New Tech Network Literacy Coach

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 elementary school.

This raises the question of the kinds of elementary practices necessary to enable such a learning trajectory.  NTN believes that early literacy instruction needs to undergo an adaptive shift, from atomized, isolated, disconnected teaching, to rich literacy instruction where students use reading and writing skills for meaningful purposes and in order to complete important work. Connecting literacy instruction to the authentic project and problem-based work happening in the classroom ensures that it’s meaningful and purposeful.

The Elementary Literacy Challenge

Elementary schools face a variety of obstacles in ensuring that their students develop the literacy skills needed to set them up for success in their later schooling. Students may enter school needing significant development of their oral language skills; without intervention, they are likely to struggle with reading comprehension in later grades (Lonigan and Shanahan, 2016). As they learn to read, students may struggle with specific word reading difficulties, specific comprehension difficulties, or mixed reading difficulties, meaning they experience challenges in the areas of word reading and comprehension. Particular student groups (for example, students with dyslexia, or English Language Learners) may have a higher incidence of certain kinds of reading difficulties. Since students benefit from interventions targeted to their specific reading difficulties, this can make differentiation difficult for teachers (Spear-Swerling, 2015).

The literacy assessments adopted by a state, district, or school may cause their own challenges. Assessments like DIBELS and other early literacy assessments that emphasize particular literacy skills can lead to a narrowing of the curriculum if not used appropriately or if they aren’t part of a larger assessment system where the results are balanced with other measures (Pearson, 2006 and Goodman, 2006).  A narrowed curriculum might mean that students don’t receive the aforementioned oral language development, for example. While foundational skills should be a priority at the early grades, comprehension and other skills are essential as well, or schools risk inadequately preparing their students for the increased comprehension demands at the later grade levels (Stahl, 2013). Other literacy assessments, such as norm-referenced assessments, may be incorrectly used to draw inferences about individual student needs, meaning that students’ true literacy challenges are never identified and leading to instructional decisions that aren’t based on evidence (McKenna, 2015).

The larger literacy curriculum in use at a particular school may also be based on outmoded frameworks and lead to less effective instruction. Many curricula currently in use rely on an outmoded framework to level texts and determine student needs and grouping. Leveled reading programs typically rely on a framework initially proposed by Betts in 1946 which requires using assessments to determine a student’s independent, instructional, and frustration reading 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).  The curricula used may also be both demotivating and less effective in developing students’ literacy skills if they don’t include choice and connect reading and writing to meaningful purposes and audiences (see, for example, Guthrie, 2015 and Boscolo and Gelati, 2013).

This combination of the specific reading difficulties students face, incorrectly used literacy assessments, and ineffective curricula relying on simplistic reading level frameworks can make ensuring students’ literacy success a challenge for schools. It can also make it difficult for schools to implement Project Based Learning at the elementary level. When NTN works with schools at the elementary level, we often hear from teachers, administrators, and districts who are concerned that students’ specific literacy challenges won’t be addressed and that Project Based Learning doesn’t align with adopted assessments and curricula. This is particularly true at the K-2 level, where schools worry about foundational skill instruction.

NTN believes that literacy instruction at the elementary level should utilize a range of assessments to inform instruction and that instruction should address the wide range of skills necessary to ensure students’ literacy development. In addition, NTN believes that instruction should be connected to meaningful purposes and contexts. Thoughtfully embedding literacy instruction into Project Based Learning at the elementary level allows for a broad range of literacy measures and contextualized, meaningful literacy instruction focused on the full set of skills necessary for student success.

Meaningful Literacy Assessments Through PBL

A number of researchers have noted that educators need to rely on multiple measures to make informed decisions about students’ literacy needs and that the most meaningful literacy assessments for informing instruction are connected to the curriculum (McKenna, 2013). Measures like running records, observational checklists, and comprehension assessments are often more useful for informing instruction. These assessments can readily be integrated into PBL.  For example, teachers might ask students to pretend to read them a picture book on a project related topic in order to assess them on an emergent literacy skill checklist, do running records while listening to students read a project related text in addition to assessing their writing, or use a qualitative spelling inventory to assess uncorrected student writing for a project.

Foundational Skill Instruction and Beyond Through Projects

Most literacy skills can be taught effectively in the context of a project. Foundational literacy skills are somewhat of an exception; since it may not always be realistic to teach foundational skills within the project, they can be taught alongside the project, meaning that skills are introduced separately and then concepts are connected back to project topics whenever possible.  For example, students might learn a letter, sound, or grapheme alongside the project, but then use vocabulary from the project to review the concept.  Another way foundational skill instruction might be connected to project topics is via writing. Writing is one effective way to support phonics learning (Cunningham, 2015), and connecting the writing to project topics makes literacy instruction purposeful and meaningful for students. Even emergent and early readers can participate in shared writing activities on project topics or use invented spelling to write about project topics using a particular letter or grapheme.   

Other literacy skills can be fully embedded into the project context.  Projects are a great way to support students’ oral language development. Effective oral language development requires a safe learning environment, interaction and a sustained focus on one topic (Lonigan and Shanahan, 2016) and collaborative projects in an environment of trust, respect, and responsibility allow for this safe environment.

Reading and writing skills that go beyond foundational skills, such as reading comprehension instruction, should also 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 (Graham and Harris, 2013).  It also aligns with best practices in supporting reading comprehension, such as ensuring texts and 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). Even at early levels, comprehension instruction is easy to embed into PBL as students look at, listen to, or read texts related to project topics. Including this kind of meaningful comprehension instruction at a Pre-K to 2nd grade level also helps prevent the kind of narrowing of the curriculum seen in schools that overemphasize foundational skills (Stahl, 2013).

Technical and Adaptive Shifts

As noted above, 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.  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.  While they might initially practice skills in texts that are unrelated to the project, ultimately, students should be using those skills in project related texts to further the goals of the project.

However, such a shift in practice may require a different set of materials, which may take time and resources. Teachers may also require support in developing and using multiple literacy measures, including curriculum embedded measures, to inform instruction.

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 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.


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