Effective literacy instruction

Recommendations for effective literacy instruction based on my teaching practices

In my junior and senior high school English classes at a private all-girl k-12 prep school, I teach higher-order literacy skills through the selection and use of excellent age- and level-appropriate materials, the strategic use of a daily sustained silent reading (SSR) program, and frequent, direct, explicit vocabulary instruction.

Good materials – In our school, we English teachers have the freedom, flexibility, and responsibility as a department of choosing textbooks, workbooks, and supplementary readings that challenge our students and help them develop their language skills in a consistent, deliberate ways. From seventh grade until twelfth grade, we have chosen to have a comprehensive literature textbook, a vocabulary workbook with three hundred new words, a grammar workbook with the same topics revisited year after year in slightly more complex and challenging ways, and supplementary readings (an average of three novels per semester). We work with materials that have been created for native English speakers, since by the time our students reach middle school they are basically bilingual and can do the work at that level of proficiency.

DIVA time – After much research on best practices of literacy instruction in high school, I decided to implement a sustained silent reading program in my classroom. At the beginning of each of my classes, the students and I have ten minutes of pleasure reading, which we call DIVA time –an acronym for what I think reading is: Dive Into Vicarious Adventure. We have created a classroom library full of English language books that are interesting to teenage girls, and from which the students can borrow freely. Each student must keep her book with her until she has finished reading. Rules for DIVA time are simple: 1) Choose any book –in English– you like; 2) Always bring your DIVA book to class; 3) As soon as you arrive at the classroom, sit down and start DIVAing; 4) No talking during DIVA; and 5) Keep track of your reading by writing the title, author, and number of pages in your Daybook, each time you finish (or switch) a book. That’s it. I try to interfere as little as possible with the reading process, since the point is to help the students discover for themselves that reading can be pleasurable, that they can read actual books, and that they are READERS. We have been DIVAing for half a semester, and I see improvement already, particularly in the girls who self-identified as non-readers. In the longer term, I expect to see an improvement in their vocabulary, reading comprehension, and attitude towards reading. We shall see how it goes.

Direct, explicit vocabulary instruction – In our school we are committed to direct, explicit vocabulary instruction, particularly of the academic vocabulary students need to perform well in national standardized tests. We have vocabulary workbooks, quickly quizzes, online flashcards, monthly and quarterly review tests, etc. But that’s not all we do. Every day we call our students’ attention to words: fun words, weird words, spooky words, foreign words, antonyms, synonyms, roots, affixes, etc. Since we teachers love words, we convey that same appreciation of language to the girls in everything we do. So far, it’s working too. We are seeing steadily rising scores and best of all, the students frequently tell us anecdotes about how they used their new words in non-school contexts!

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