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The Developmental Approach to Literacy Instruction: Helping Teachers Know What to Teach, When, Why, and How


In an earlier post, we described how teaching literacy from a developmental perspective provides your students, both pre-service and in-service teachers, a theoretical and pedagogical “home,” or “safe harbor.” Understanding the developmental approach helps teachers not only accelerate student learning, but also become more resilient to the inevitable shifts in ideology, pedagogy, and educational policy they’ll encounter throughout their careers. In today’s post, we’ll look more closely at the developmental approach and how children’s word knowledge is predictive of other literacy skills, and how this understanding helps teachers prioritize and differentiate their literacy instruction.

At some level, all learners are trying to make meaning when they read. The ease with which they are able to do so during reading, and how well they adjust when reading becomes challenging, depends a great deal on how efficiently they process written text at the word level, and later at the sentence and paragraph level. The same is true in writing: the degree to which students are able to write effectively—to encode their thinking at the word and sentence level while keeping the purpose of their writing in mind—depends a great deal on their knowledge of words, how to spell them, and what they mean. The more knowledge children have about words, the more efficient their processing becomes, freeing up cognitive resources to focus on comprehending text while reading, and expressing their ideas in writing.

More than forty years ago, Edmund Henderson, a literacy educator and researcher, noticed that the way children spelled words highly correlated to their other literacy skills. Later, the cognitive psychologist Charles Perfetti reinforced Henderson’s insight when he observed, “Spelling and reading use the same lexical representation. In fact, spelling is a good test of the quality of representation” (Perfetti, 1993, p. 170, emphasis added). These two early pioneers discovered, as countless researchers have affirmed in the decades since, that effective reading and writing are dependent upon students’ word knowledge. They also learned that reading and writing develop in synchrony, following a predictable pattern or continuum of development. With these observations in mind, studying children’s spelling samples, or using a well-constructed spelling inventory will help teachers identify their students’ stages of development, helping them match students to appropriately difficult texts, and plan developmentally responsive literacy instruction across the grades.

From Theory to Practice: The Developmental Approach in Action

Using the characteristics of learners in the five stages of development: emergent, beginning, transitional, intermediate, and skillful, we’ll illustrate how children’s spelling reveals their stage of development and shapes their teachers’ instructional priorities:

Take Lee, for instance. Because spelling is such a powerful indicator of development, we are able to determine that Lee is in the late Emergent Stage of literacy development because she is just beginning to represent the most salient sounds in words when writing:

(“The people saw him eating strawberry cake.”)

We are also able to predict that Allison, a first grader who spells using the names of letters and some letter/sound correspondence, is in the Beginning Stage of development:

(“I lost my stick in the driveway.”)

Kirstin, a second grader, spells most short vowel words correctly and is beginning to experiment with common long vowel patterns, indicating that she is in the Transitional Stage of development:

Sharons frind brocke her arm yesterday by jumping off a swing.
I cant whate till tomarrow.

Michael, a fourth grader, spells long vowel words such as float, train, and bright correctly; his errors begin to appear in two-syllable words such as shoping for shopping, surving for serving, and ripin for ripen. Michael’s spelling suggests that he is in the Intermediate Stage of development.

Ashley spells words such as village, confidence, and fortunate correctly, but she makes the following errors, suggesting she is in the Skillful Stage: dominence for dominance, iliterate for illiterate, and irrisponsible for irresponsible.

By studying students’ spelling, noting what they do correctly, and what they’re beginning to experiment with, we’re able to illuminate their “instructional zones” and stages of development. With these insights, we’re able to predict how well they can access text. For instance, we know:

  • Beginning readers such as Allison are reading approximately 50-60 words correct per minute (WCPM) and will read in Guided Reading levels C through G
  • Transitional readers such as Kirstin are reading approximately 80-100 WCPM  and are able to read and understand texts in the 300-600 Lexile range
  • Intermediate readers such as Michael are reading approximately 120 up to 145 WCPM and are able to read texts in the 600-900 Lexile range
  • Skillful readers such as Ashley are reading approximately 150 up to 250 WCPM and are able to read texts in the 850-1150 Lexile range

Teachers are also able to set instructional priorities based on their observations of students’ spelling and stages of development. Allison, for example, will benefit from studying words with short vowel patterns, eventually comparing these words to those with common long vowel patterns. As she begins to understand how single-syllable short and long vowel words work, she’ll start reading and writing these words with greater accuracy and automaticity, allowing her to read and write with greater fluency and stamina, eventually reading and writing longer and more complex texts. Allison’s fluency instruction in the beginning stage will focus on repeated readings to build her word recognition skills. As she enters the transitional stage, this instruction will shift to help her read with increased expression and comprehension. Reader’s theater would become a good instructional choice at that time. Daily writing practice will help reinforce Allison’s reading development.

Michael, on the other hand, is poised to study two and three syllable words for purposes of spelling them correctly. With instruction, he’ll begin to examine a range of prefixes and suffixes and their effects on the root words to which they are attached, and how the meaning of words affects their spelling. These insights will help Michael read, spell, and understand longer, more complex words. With his teacher’s support, Michael will learn how to dig deeper into texts, reading more closely and critically, exploring a full range of genres and various points of view. In writing, Michael will be responsive to instruction that focuses on author’s craft and text structure, including reports and argumentative writing.

Within any elementary or middle school classroom, teachers will find students in at least two, if not three or four stages of development. By helping your students – both in-service and pre-service teachers – become familiar with the types of developmental profiles and trajectories described here, you’ll be preparing them to think realistically about the nature and focus of instruction for the variety of learners they’ll find in their classrooms today and in the future.

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


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