What matters most in a comprehensive literacy program?

“What matters most in a comprehensive literacy program that meets the needs of diverse learners?”

This is a complex question!  There are a myriad of components of any literacy program.  To identify ‘what matters most…’  That’s tough!  Reviewing my original reflection I am both confirmed in my thoughts and actions and at the same time pushed to do more, learn more and teach more.  Through discussion, class presentations and activities there are several areas which are highlighted for me as key areas of focus for inclusive literacy classrooms and schools.

  1. Vygotskian model
  2. Oral language
  3. Differentiation
  4. Authentic phonics instruction
  5. Schoolwide commitment

It has been, admittedly, a long time since I consciously considered Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.  Once upon a time it was at the initial planning stage of every lesson, activity and centre.  I am not sure when the conscious thought of ‘the zone’ slipped away?  Despite the slip from my mind, the process has always been present.  I was re-energized to have the model again brought to conscious thought and practiced with explicit application.  When reflecting on student activities or planning for new exercises, I have found myself naming the processes, referencing the model and confirming the strategies for success to be applied for student learning.  Knowing my students, developing relationships and planning for their success is my primary goal.  By explicitly planning for the ZPD I am forced to look deeper to the student abilities, interests and motivators to effectively plan for success.

Integration of ZPD and a Gradual Release Model rang true to me and it indeed reminds me of my role as a mother, as referenced in Johnson and Keier.  Modeling is indeed a required tool to be applied at the right times.  Knowing the right times and recognizing the opportunity for enhanced learning is the result of a bit of intuition, a lot of referencing of experience and drawing upon training and education.  Independence is the goal [1] and should be the on-going objective for all learners.  Setting realistic, achievable learning objectives for students will make independence a reality in small steps or big leaps.  People laugh when I tell them I gave my son his own washer and dryer for his tenth birthday, but that confidence, structured instruction and release of responsibility was my plan for his independence.  I set a goal, defined the realistic and achievable objectives, planned for their success and implemented with confidence.  Today, as the primary care giver of two preschoolers, my son tells me it was the systematic approach, modeling, support and gradual independence that has prepared him for his role as dedicated and responsible parent.

The same basic principles must be applied within the classroom.  Identify needs, set goals, outline objectives, implement the plan… but most of all be flexible!  A flexible educator prepares to be surprised, to be overwhelmed and to be under whelmed.  The goals often change, the objectives need to be refined and implementation plans might need revision.  Flexibility allows the teacher to move with the child in their learning journey.  Often as educators we are busy building bridges, finding supports and lifting ramps for success.  Our goal is always the development of skills and abilities within the learners to find their own roads, choose the paths which present challenges but which can be managed with tools taken on the journey in a tool belt filled by caring, intuitive and responsive teachers.

Self regulation is one of the most important tools and is the result of implementation of language strategies, use and modeling.  [2] Again this echoes the stride for independence.  Language use by the educator, the family, and the student is impactful and should be carefully considered.  I was truly appreciative of the class discussion regarding school language use around student descriptions.  I have entered staffrooms and witnessed disrespectful discussions and characterizations of students.  We must be vocal in our witness to improper behaviour, effect change where we can and educate when we are able.  I am endeavoring to change my reaction to these situations.  I would typically avoid the toxic staff, leave the room or gripe to myself.  I am empowered to speak for the students, to identify my role as a leader and teacher, and to set a positive role model working for student success.

I spent quite a bit of time reviewing the list of questions regarding the Vygotskian Classroom.  I have been empowered in my processes and applications of strategies for student growth.  The basic principles have always been part of my mission.  The discussion and research into language use has been most motivating for me personally.

Oral language is often relegated to primary classrooms or senior debate teams.  As both an elementary and secondary teacher I have always been committed to integration and celebration of oral language in the classroom.  Sharing personal histories, individual journeys, and solitary quests is an integrated way to build social emotional support and affirm student identity.  I was thrilled to read “Floating on a Sea of Talk…” by Kathy Mills.  It both affirmed my own beliefs and confirmed research I have long thought to be true.  A student who is able to share orally is able to self advocate!  That means they are more likely to speak out in situations where they may be at risk for abuse, neglect or speak for their own learning needs in the classroom.  A student with strong oral skills and a strong sense of self (promoted through authentic oral language opportunities) is present for their peers; a conscious and empathetic group member.  Sharing often ends at grade three (sadly sometimes before that) but there is research and support for development of strong oral skills beyond the primary grades for a number of reasons.

Oral language builds better readers!  Oral language improves understanding.  Oral language promotes meta-cognition; student identification of their own thinking strategies. [3] This allows them to then apply those strategies to numerous situations expanding their learning capabilities and adding to that tool belt.

The read-aloud is an important aspect of oral language in the classroom.  A read-aloud can be part of teacher modeling; can be for enjoyment, or for interactive discussion and an effective instructional strategy. [4] Why stop reading aloud?  It shouldn’t be restricted to elementary grades.  I worked this year with a challenging group of students in Communications 11/12.  They were at best described as reluctant readers.  Personal reading selections were not forthcoming so with my team teacher, we decided to read ‘Of Mice and Men’ with them.  We were both apprehensive about how this would go!  I am a firm believer that novels are not required in an effective, literacy rich secondary English classroom, but we were at a loss for engaging this particular group.  The first couple days presented minefields of preparation for the novella… language, setting, background, but we forged ahead!  We decided a read aloud format was the way to go!  I was lifted to this decision by the discussions in our EPSE 464 class and the encouragement of the text and articles I was reading.  We were not prepared for the interest, involvement and interactive discussion from the students as we read the novel.  Students actively stopped us, to discuss language, reflect on passages and make predictions for both the story line and the fate of individual characters.  In reflection of the novella, we would finish a section and model discussions about certain aspects.  The students (who believe me were non participants up to that point) would leap in, start their own discussions and were constantly reflecting on character actions.  They would often ask us to re-read sections.  The scaffolded skills led to rich reflections and active participation in comprehension and extended activities, integrating both the oral language and written work.  [5]We had copies of the novel available for the students but only one foreign student opened his copy.  The other students listened avidly ready to interrupt when they missed vocabulary or were confused about something, leaving the paperbacks sitting in from of them.  They were hungry for literacy, for the shared story.  After that we read ‘Charles’, ‘The Lottery’, and ‘The Invitations’.   Students read, we read, and together some students found courage to read together. The students either loved the stories or hated them – no in between!  But they let us know how they felt and why.  They supported their thinking with textual references, examples and drew on other stories they knew.  As I love picture books and traditional literature and shared them in the class, the students with limited literature background were unafraid to reference childhood stories and experiences.  Students opened up about what they did read outside of school.  It was mostly instruction guides or on-line textual material, but they were reading and talking about it!  All from a 90 year old novella which presented the language and societal taboos which intrigued some disengaged learners.  I am so glad we led by example, modeled and read aloud.

The differentiation described in the text and articles for a literacy rich classroom is exactly what I strive for in my own classroom.  I have always had differentiation as my mission and the confirmation of that core belief in my teaching was both supportive and encouraging.  It encouraged me to seek additional information and research.  I have been motivated to build a differentiated model which secondary teachers can draw on easily for implementation.  It will be an ongoing work for the next while, but I am hopeful to share with colleagues for impactful change, motivating discussion and as always… personal growth and peer development.

Varied learning opportunities, alternate presentation models, changeable groups and centres, provide chances for student instruction, exploration, reflection and peer interaction.[6]  Differentiation is a net cast broadly encompassing backgrounds: social, emotional, economic, cultural, and linguistic.  Learners indeed arrive in all shapes, sizes and with their own baggage.  By actively and authentically differentiating for instruction we provide literacy rich experiences to develop student reading, writing and oral language.  To affect the format needed to work actively within a differentiated classroom, management must be under control.  Student involvement and safety in the learning environment is essential.  The classroom model for management might need to also be varied depending on the cultural expectations within the classroom. [7]

I was most intrigued by the simple formula, presented by Lisa in class, for guided reading.  I have been to numerous workshops, staff retreats on guided reading groups and none were so simply presented as what I saw in the class.  I think sometimes in our zeal to make processes accessible, complexities are added which detract from the student experience. I will be happy to integrate small guided reading groups through regular class instruction.

Within the middle and high school settings, the basis of Project Based Learning provides unlimited opportunities for differentiation and student development of reading, writing, oral language, comprehension, and application of learning.    I am excited to continue  applying the concepts of Tiered activities, Collaborative learning, differentiated instructional models, collaborative instruction and co-planning with literacy coaches at senior levels.[8]  After being away from the traditional classroom for a number of years I am excited to renew my skills, expand my learning and facilitate student success.

Phonics instruction was a taboo in my world.  I was raised in a literacy rich home surrounded by adults who embraced and celebrated the whole language movement.  There existed a genuine distaste for traditional phonics and as we were all avid readers with good levels of literacy,  I thought that was all there was to the argument.  (I was expected to play Scrabble™ at a sufficient level at age 6)  The introduction of phonics instruction in authentic and meaningful ways through the class readings and discussions was itself meaningful to me.  I began to revise my views on integrated instruction, explicit teaching and authentic phonics experiences.  [9]  I am invigorated to implement more strategic phonics instruction which will be meaningful and integrated in reading and writing experiences for the learner!

Finally, a School wide commitment to literacy and student success is needed.  Sometimes it feels like we really do live in our classrooms.  A dedicated staff and a strong administrative team are mandatory for school reform, but reform can be seen incubating in a school where two or more dedicated teachers are collaborating, learning from each other, from their students, where the teachers look for personal growth and learning opportunities.  I loved the model set at Pearson Road Elementary.  Armed with information gathered from our classes, I spoke to the principal I worked with this year about establishing a school commitment to a literacy rich environment.  At the secondary level it is too easy for people to say “They are in grade 11!  They know how to read!”  I heard that lots this year as I worked with students reading at the grade 5 level.  But this principal has been anxious to discuss options and strategies and I am hopeful that the school will begin the development of a growth plan this fall.   Strong principal leadership will set the standard for realistic objectives!  Staff education and professional development will be pivotal to continued development of a school wide program.  The steps laid out by Regie Routman was a jumping point for discussion and planning in my meeting with the principal.  I love the quote “Perhaps the greatest change teachers make on their journey to becoming more effective is to slow down their teaching so they can hurry up the learning for their students.” (Routman, 2014)  Words to live by.


Bursuck, William D., Damer, Mary. (2015). Teaching reading to students who are at risk or have disabilities – chapter 1 [Class handout]. Department of Education, University of British Columbia Okanagan, Kelowna, Canada.

Johnson,Pat., Keier, Katie. (2010), Catching readers before they fall.  Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Kameenui, Edward j. (2015)  Diverse learners and the tyranny of time: don’t fix blame; fix the leaky roof.  [Class handout]. Department of Education, University of British Columbia Okanagan, Kelowna, Canada.

Mills, Kathy A. (2009).  Floating on a sea of talk: reading comprehension through speaking and listening. [Classroom handout]. Department of Education, University of British Columbia Okanagan, Kelowna, Canada.

Routman, Regie. (2012).  Mapping a pathway to schoolwide highly effective teaching [class handout].  Department of Education, University of British Columbia Okanagan, Kelowna, Canada.

Wilkinson, Louise C., Silliman, Elaine R. (2015) Classroom language and literacy learning.[Classroom handout].   Department of Education, University of British Columbia Okanagan, Kelowna, Canada.

Author unknown.  Differentiating for success – chapter 11. [Classroom handout]. Department of Education, University of British Columbia Okanagan, Kelowna, Canada.

[1] (Johnson, Keier, 2010)

[2] (Johnson, Keier, 2010)

[3] (Mills, 2009)

[4] (Johnson, Keier, 2010)

[5] (Wilkinson, Silliman, 2015)

[6] (Kameenui, 1993)

[7] (Au, 2015)

[8] (Ch. 11 handout from class ‘Differentiating for Success’– no citation available)

[9] (Bursuck, 2015)

© Michelle Redman and mredmanwrites, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michelle Redman and mredmanwrites https://mredmanwrites.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/what-matters-most-in-a-comprehensive-literacy-program/


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