Overcoming Illiteracy in the Classroom

Illiteracy

After a decade in the classroom, and a year under my belt as a new mom, I have learned the lesson all too often about why some kids do well in the academic realm and why others do not.

The solution is rather simple really and it all has to do with ENVIRONMENT.

You see, as a new teacher all I cared about was making my classroom cute. I wanted it colorful and bright. I also wanted my name personalized on everything.  Somehow, though, that didn’t translate into successful learning for my students. (It had an effect, of course, but nothing to write home about!) Overtime, I learned where to put my attention and time so that it translated into student learning…and it wasn’t with decor!

As a new mom, I made the choice to skip the baby talk and just talk to my child like I would anyone else. I didn’t change my vocabulary, although I was very intentional about speaking slowly and annunciating. I also paid particular attention to the environment I created for my daughter. Every room had learning opportunities. When I picked out toys, I made sure they were colorful to attract her attention, educational to aid her in learning, and developmentally appropriate so she wouldn’t get frustrated. She has since surpassed numerous milestones and is well beyond her years. (Yes, some of that does have to do with who she is genetically, but it more has to do with how her environment helped her natural skills develop.)

In both of these examples as a teacher and mom, I realized that the environment I was creating so children had access to learning opportunities made all the difference. That is because of one simple fact:

The ones that struggle in learning are still capable, they just need different approaches. Their actual capacity to learn is innate. When we water down our environment to meet these particular children where they are, it does them such a disservice.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the remedy for illiteracy in our classroom and home environments is… EXPOSURE.

Think about it… if you are learning a new language, would you want to be immersed directly into the culture or sit in a classroom learning isolated words? Sure, jumping in head first is overwhelming, but you learn so much more about the natural use of language and interaction with other people rather than sitting in rows repeating random, unrelated words or phrases.

Many children can rise to the occasion if we just immerse them in a supportive, structured environment. When we have high expectations paired with differentiated assistance, they are able to gain new skills while meeting the necessary requirements. Never shortchange a student just because their track record says they CAN’T or because where they start is far from where they need to end.

Overcoming illiteracy in the classroom is a process. To get started, follow these three simple tips:

  1. Purchase learning materials that are exploratory in nature so children can handle them on their own. This develops curiosity, problem-solving, and dexterity.
  2. Limit technology so that it is not the primary learning tool for children. Teach them to use technology as a resource when needed, but to not depend on it for clarity or enjoyment.
  3. Model appropriate interaction so children have an example for how to appropriately interact with instructional tools and each other.

Once you have successfully implemented the above, consider the suggestions below on how to structure your environment so that children are exposed to rich learning opportunities to overcome illiteracy in reading, writing, and speaking.

Reading

  • Fill your classroom and home with books so that children can learn to hold a book, turn pages, take notice of illustrations, make predictions, locate sight words, and begin to read.
  • Expose students to a variety of texts and genres (ie. street signs, menus, receipts, online websites, newspapers, etc. ) that they will encounter on a daily basis so that they can see how fun and necessary reading fluency can be.
  • Allow students to pick books based on their personal interest as well as books based on their reading level so that the spark and motivation to tackle harder texts is cultivated rather than stymied.

Writing

  • Incorporate writing into all aspects of instruction. Writing shouldn’t just be a block of time on the schedule. Writing needs to be learning’s best friend no matter what subject is being taught. The more students write (jot notes, white board answers, sight word index cards, etc.) the better they get- plus when the focus is on content and not on writing, students can practice without realize they are practicing!
  • Allow students to free write without constraints. This means students can write without stopping to think about punctuation, sentence structure or spelling. Set the timer for short increments that you can lengthen overtime, and allow students’ pencils to write continuously. There is freedom in writing without rules. There is plenty of time later on to edit a written piece so that it does follow grammar rules, but it is most important that students get their ideas on paper without facing obstacles.
  • Create individualized sight word lists so that each student can refer to the words they use most often. This increases the likelihood that the words that come naturally to them when writing will begin to be spelled correctly in an authentic way. It doesn’t mean you cannot have a few class words, but a personalized list increases motivation to improve on one’s own writing.

Speaking

  • Introduce students to new vocabulary in everyday situations. For example, you might have found a specific word within a read aloud, placed it on the board as a class sight word and then began using this word during instruction throughout the day. Now students have seen, written and heard the new vocabulary word which allows their brains to retain it from both long and short term memory.
  • Be repetitive with academic words you use so that students build familiarity and understanding. It takes repetitive use of a new skill for it to stick. As the teacher, you must provide opportunities for students to observe and participate in repeated learning of new information.
  • Model correct use of language in everyday settings. It can be tempting to use slang to connect with your students, and when used sparingly is a great strategy to build relationships, but students need your accurate portrayal of language as often as possible. Then, hold students accountable to the same standard. When they use an everyday word instead of a new vocabulary word (ie. house vs. dwelling), have the student, stop, think, reference learning materials, and try again. This exercise ensures students will not only hear and be exposed to quality language, but use it in their daily life too.

As teachers, we have a tremendous opportunity to give children what they need so that they can be successful in school and life. If we create the environment to get them to their potential, and utilize their natural learning capacity, our children will be able to grow into model citizens and contributing adults in society.

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How have you overcome illiteracy in your own classroom?

About the author, Gretchen

I am an educator of almost a decade, passionate about cultivating talent in aspiring and new teachers through practical tips and strategies. My blog, book, and podcast are geared towards empowering teachers to enter the profession and stay there due to the advice and encouragement I provide. We have a real need in our nation for strong leaders in classrooms, and I believe its my calling and duty to coach teachers to achieve and maintain best teaching practices in order to drive the growth and success of our students in and outside the classroom.