Effective literacy teaching in first-grade classrooms

Nine first-grade teachers from four districts were studied to see whose teaching practices led to outstanding literacy development. These teachers had been nominated as either typical or outstanding in their ability to help students develop literacy skills. The instructional practices of three teachers emerged as producing the highest levels of achievement on measures of reading, writing and student engagement. Researchers report that the data from this study highlight the complexity of primary literacy instruction, which, at its best, integrates high-quality reading and writing experiences with explicit instruction in basic skills.

Ruth Wharton-McDonald, University of New Hampshire; Michael Pressley, University of Notre Dame; and Jennifer Mistretta Hampston, Youngstown State University, write that although there is much debate about the best way to teach beginning reading, there are few studies of how successful teachers actually do it. Therefore, these researchers set out to study the beliefs and practices of teachers whose students consistently scored well in language arts at the end of first grade. They observed and analyzed their teaching practices in detail for a year to determine what practices constitute effective literacy instruction at the first-grade level.

Four suburban school districts included in study

Four suburban school districts volunteered to participate in the study. One was an upper-middle-class school with little racial diversity, while the other three schools had more diverse, middle-class populations. Language arts classes were observed at least twice a month and teachers were interviewed in-depth twice during the study. At the end of the study, each teacher was shown a summary of her teaching style developed from observations, interviews and children’s work collected during the year. Each teacher reviewed the summary and critiqued the researchers’ conclusions to arrive at a consensus.

During the study, the researchers report, achievement differences between the classes became obvious. By the end of the year, most students in some classes were consistently reading at or above a beginning second-grade level, whereas most students in other classes were reading below grade level. Students in lower-achieving classes were frequently observed reading from primerlevel basals or from small books with predictable text and limited vocabulary. Reading levels were determined by recording the books each child read.

There were also clear differences between classes in the length and coherence of assigned writing and in the use of writing conventions and accurate spelling. In the more advanced classes, students wrote compositions up to five pages long with most of the words spelled correctly and much of the punctuation correct. Researchers noted that the low achievers in these classes also made considerable progress.

In the higher-achieving classes, more children were actively engaged in literacy tasks more of the time. Typical engagement rates in higher-achieving classes ranged from 80 to 100 percent. In lower-achieving classes attentiveness was typically between 50 and 65 percent. Approximately half the students in classes with poor attention ended the year reading at an early-to-mid-first-grade level. Writing tended to be unorganized, poorly punctuated and brief. In these classes, assigned tasks seemed to be either too easy or too difficult for some children, and therefore did not hold their attention.

Characteristics distinguishing high-achievement teachers

All nine teachers in this study used some mixture of direct skills instruction and whole-language activities. However, they differed in the proportion of time they devoted to each, the type of activities they included, the quality of the books they used and the coherence of their approaches. The three teachers whose students had the highest reading and writing levels and engagement in learning were more likely to believe they could foster literacy, even in children whose parents were not involved in their learning. And they displayed consistently high expectations for all of their students.

The lower-achieving teachers were more likely to cite readiness theories and differences in home environments in explaining why they expected less of some students. Although the high-achieving teachers also believed that readiness plays an important role in learning to read, they believed they had the power to influence students’ development and the responsibility to continue providing individualized instruction and materials as the children matured.

Effective teachers balanced direct skills and whole language

The most effective teachers had a well-integrated and balanced combination of direct skills instruction and whole-language activities. All three teachers in high-achieving classes taught decoding skills explicitly. They had lists of basic skills students should master in first grade and planned instruction to address these skills. They varied considerably in how they presented these skills, however. One designed his own lessons while another used scope-and-sequence activities from a basal reading series, the third incorporated a continuum of skills into authentic literacy activities. These teachers were able to think well on their feet.

All were skilled at incorporating mini-lessons on basic skills as opportunities presented themselves. In these classes, children had many opportunities to engage in reading and writing activities. These students read many books alone, in pairs and with the teacher. They heard good literature read aloud. They used books to search for information on topics of interest. They wrote letters and notes and recorded the growth of plants and development of chicks hatching in their classrooms.

All these activities were meaningfully linked to ongoing themes and instruction in specific skills. Teachers whose students achieved less well tended to present instruction that was heavily based in either skills or whole language or combined the two approaches in a disjointed or inconsistent way.

Multiple goals integrated into single lessons

One of the most striking characteristics of the instruction in high-achieving classes was its density. The teachers integrated multiple goals into a single lesson. They never seemed to do just one thing at a time. For example, a teacher used a lesson on the long “o” sound to build on children’s vocabulary and concept development.

In contrast, students in lower-achieving classrooms, spent considerable time on activities that were not nearly as complex or literacy-relevant such as copying or asking one other rote questions. They also tended to spend more time in transitions or waiting for their teacher’s direction. Lessons typically focused on a single instructional goal, and teachers rarely inserted mini-lessons as opportunities arose.

Another characteristic of successful teachers, and one that contributed greatly to the density of their instruction, was their use of “scaffolding” — monitoring students’ learning carefully, stepping in to provide assistance as needed. Scaffolding often took the form of questioning. By asking students how they had arrived at a particular answer, teachers helped them move forward and reach higher skills. Students were encouraged to monitor themselves and to know what to try if they were having difficulty.

Reading and writing were skillfully interwoven in high-achieving classes. Students frequently wrote about what they were reading and used books to further develop topics for writing. These classes made more revisions and more frequently wrote a final copy that included a relatively high level of organization, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation. Conferences were substantive, resulting in meaningful revisions of their drafts. Reading and writing were also integrated with other subjects such as math and science. Literacy was part of everything that went on in these top three classrooms.

Expert managers of time

In addition, these teachers were expert managers of time, activities and student behavior, often preventing misbehavior before it occurred. They minimized disruptions and had predictable patterns of activities, expectations and consequences. These teachers were also good managers of outside resources, specialists and teacher aides.

Overall, two factors specific to literacy instruction emerged that identified highly effective first-grade teachers. The first was an instructional balance between authentic, whole-language activities and direct teaching of skills, and the second was a thorough integration of reading and writing activities. Teachers who obtained high achievement orchestrated fluid transitions between reading and writing in a single lesson.

These researchers point out that their study was limited to the relatively similar, suburban populations in the districts they studied. Their findings may not apply to other student populations.

“Literacy Instruction in Nine First-Grade Classrooms: Teacher Characteristics and Student Achievement” The Elementary School Journal Volume 99, Number 2, November 1998 pp. 101-128.

Published in ERN December 1998/January 1999 Volume 12 Number 1

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