Advancing Children's Literacy through Elevated Teacher Expertise

It's not the next new thing that is key to children's literacy, but deeper teacher knowledge.

What Teachers Need to Foster Student Literacy

Every child is different—each learns in a certain way, understands in a certain way, and progresses in a certain way. To ensure the literacy success of all children, teachers need to have at their fingertips a variety of tools for teaching effectively to all. Over the decades, we have seen various perspectives on the essential elements of high quality literacy opportunities for children; there always seems to be a new set of learning materials, another new program, or unit improvements that will finally make the difference.  

Of course, we want beautiful books and high quality materials that support global learning, but we need to accept what we have long known: that what will make the biggest difference in student learning is what teachers know and understand as they make minute-by-minute teaching decisions. This means going beyond scripts and one-size-fits-all lessons delivered the same way to all students to complex teaching grounded in teacher understanding. 

We argue for the kind of thoughtful teaching that means not just changing what teachers do, but how they think about what they do. This means a school filled with educators who value and actively seek continuous professional learning and administrators who understand the investment in continuous teacher expertise is the soundest long-term investment in student literacy—a culture of teacher growth. To that end, the Literacy Collaborative, a comprehensive school improvement model developed by literacy experts Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, focuses on building teacher and school literary expertise. Some of the premises of the collaborative model follow.

Though we have seen a variety of approaches to instruction and arguments about content over the years, the key role of teacher expertise in schools must be at the forefront of systemic change if we are serious about educating every child.
Irene Fountas, Author, Professor, and Director of the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Four Key Areas of Expertise for Teachers of Literacy

1. Expertise in Systematic Observation and Assessment: Responsive Teaching

Teachers need to be able to observe carefully what students know and are able to do as readers, writers, listeners, talkers, or viewers, and they need to be skilled at using this information to guide teaching. Skilled observers note the precise language and literacy behaviors the child reveals and understand how the behaviors reflect the child’s building of a processing system for literacy. They can use that knowledge to make their next teaching move. Responsive teaching meets the learners where they are and brings them forward with intention and precision.

2. Expertise in Understanding the Reading and Writing Process and How it Changes Over Time: Teaching Toward Competencies

Teachers need to know what proficient reading and writing looks like and sounds like. Through observing effective processing and how it changes over time, teachers build understandings of how readers and writers build a literacy processing system and can teach towards those competencies. This means teaching forward with a clear view of the competencies, and the ability to note changes along the way.

3. Expertise in Understanding the Demands of Texts: Progressive Complexity

When teachers understand the ten characteristics of texts (see spotlight at top right), they can anticipate the demands and provide successive levels of support to each reader in taking on new ways of processing increasingly complex texts. When teachers are able to analyze mentor texts, they can help students learn from effective writers of every genre how to write for a variety of purposes and audiences. Knowledge of texts also enables the expert teacher to use different texts for different purposes.

4. Expertise in Core Instructional Procedures: The Elements of High Impact Teaching

Teachers need to develop expertise in a set of highly effective instructional procedures that can be linked to student learning. The procedures need to reflect elements of high impact teaching such as good pacing, intensity, and transfer. This includes knowing when whole group teaching, small group teaching, or individual teaching is appropriate and effective for the students. This also requires knowledge of the texts that provide the appropriate amount of support and challenge to assure new learning.