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Literacy Dilemmas? Ask a Researcher

Real teacher questions about reading instruction, answered by faculty specialists
Reading Dilemmas

In a new series aimed at closing the gap between research and practice, Usable Knowledge is partnering with Digital Promise on a project that collects real questions from educators across the country and poses them to faculty members at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The series, called Ask a Researcher, offers evidence-based guidance to classroom dilemmas in the areas of literacy, mathematics, and English language learning, giving teachers credible strategies to enhance student learning. (Questions are gathered from educators in Ditigal Promise's League of Innovative Schools; plans are developing to solicit questions more broadly.)

Here, we share an excerpt of questions and answers in literacy, with links to the full series.

Q: What are the most effective strategies to help students whose reading is significantly below grade level?

Building skills around phonemic awareness and phonics is key, says James Kim, since children who are poor readers likely struggle with segmenting the multiple sounds in a word and with matching letters to those sounds. But it's vital that these students continue to learn content alongside their peers, so they also need opportunities to grapple with complex texts. "Most children can understand more by listening than by reading," says Kim. "Reading aloud complex texts is a valuable way to build the background knowledge needed to do well on a summative test." Read Kim's complete answer.

Q: What instructional practice would you advise literacy teachers to abandon? What should they start doing? 

Stop using round-robin reading, recommends Pamela Mason. It can be stressful for struggling readers, and it can decrease comprehension; most students silently rehearse what they will be required to read rather than listen to others. Startor continue  to engage in discussions. Use discussions to activate background knowledge about a text; to check for understanding and make predictions; and to discuss memorable parts of the text. "Teachers should foster student-to-student discussions, rather than 'spoke and wheel,' teacher-to-student conversations," says Mason. Read Mason's full response.

Q: What are the most effective curricular interventions at the elementary and secondary levels?

Good literacy instruction gives students opportunities to build fundamental skills without actually focusing on the skills themselves, says Catherine Snow. Instead of requiring students to "decipher multisyllabic words" or "practice close reading," teachers should offer "authentic tasks to which the use of reading, writing, and academic language are integral." Second-graders can write instructions for kindergarteners on how to plant a garden, or seventh-graders can synthesize articles on television violence to forumulate recommendations for parents. Reading and writing for real-world purposes like these can make literacy more enjoyable and satisying for students. Read Snow's complete answer.

Q: For middle and high school students, what is the most effective instructional model to maximize literacy development?

Think about the goals you want to achieve, suggests Vicki Jacobs. In some areas, you may just want students to memorize definitions; in others, you may want them to be able to apply knowledge to create something new. To have students truly understand new content, formulate a lesson plan in which students discover meaning through inquiry. For example, if you want to students to comprehend imagery as a concept, have them investigate how different images in a poem create different mental pictures, and how those pictures create meaning. This type of inqiury-based instruction supports students in becoming independent learners. Read Jacobs' full response.

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