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Teaching Literacy Developmentally in the Age of Common Standards

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Your students, our students – both pre-service and in-service teachers – are entering the field or currently teaching during a time of rapid change and uncertainty. Increasingly rigorous standards, high-stakes assessment, technological advancements, shrinking budgets, and the ever-changing demographics of schools are just some of the variables today’s teachers must learn to negotiate and manage. Whether they’re implementing the English Language Arts standards of the new Common Core State Standards, or some future iteration of standards, today’s teachers need to be able to translate theory into practice, meet the diverse needs of students from a wide variety of backgrounds, and accelerate growth and learning so children can meet increasingly robust expectations. As teacher educators, we’re forced to rethink our practice in the context of these realities, and within our own changing contexts, too. We frequently wonder, what is it teachers really need to make informed and thoughtful decisions in their classrooms both today and in the future? What knowledge, skills, and dispositions are critical to keeping them engaged and committed to teaching and learning, as well as impervious to the whims and vagaries of policy, politics, and ideology?

By teaching our students how to teach literacy from a developmental perspective, we believe we’re providing them with a theoretical and pedagogical “home” or “safe harbor.” From this more secure perspective, they will be better positioned to respond to students’ needs, knowing not only what to teach, but how, when, and why. These insights are guaranteed to outlast whatever cultural, political, or technological shifts teachers will encounter throughout their careers.

So what is “the developmental approach” to literacy?

The developmental approach builds on the understanding that children follow a predictable pattern or continuum of literacy development. This pattern is expressed in five stages of development: emergent, beginning, transitional, intermediate, and skillful. Within each stage, children display discernible characteristics at the early, middle, and late phases of the stage, and these characteristics signal what they know and can do independently, what they’re experimenting with (their instructional zones,) and what’s beyond them at this time, their frustration zone. When teaching in children’s instructional zones, or “zones of proximal development,” learning advances more readily and with better results.

The authors of the Common Core State Standards recognize these developmental differences in two critical places in the document: “No set of grade-specific standards can fully reflect the great variety in abilities, needs, learning rates, and achievement levels of students in any given classroom” (p. 16). Therefore, “Instruction should be differentiated… The point is to teach students what they need to learn…to discern when particular children or activities warrant more or less attention” (p. 15, emphasis added). They also acknowledge the critical role and importance of the classroom teacher in planning effective instruction: “The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach” (p. 6).

Understanding the developmental approach provides practical answers to the questions pre-service and experienced teachers so often ask, such as “How can I address grade-level standards with students who are below grade level?” “How can I support English learners learning to read and write in English?” and “How can I organize and manage differentiated, student-centered instruction in my classroom?”

With your help and insights, aspiring teachers and seasoned experts can use their understanding of literacy development to anticipate, respond, and meet the diverse needs of their students both today and in the future.

Our next post will briefly introduce the developmental model, addressing how 1) word knowledge is highly correlated with and predictive of other literacy skills, and 2) how their understanding of literacy development helps teachers prioritize and differentiate instruction.

Shane Templeton and Kristin M. Gehsmann are authors of a new literacy methods text, Teaching Reading and Writing: The Developmental Approach (PreK-8). Visit us online for more information about this text.

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