You’ve written 35 books and several quick reference guides. A number of them deal with literacy. Would you say literacy is a passion for you, and if so, why?
Yes, literacy has been a lifelong passion for me. It’s certainly the foundation for success in school and definitely carries over to success in life beyond formal schooling. Once students learn how to read, they can immediately begin to read to learn. I personally have always loved to read. Conveying the importance of literacy to my own children and grandchildren as well as to teachers, students, and parents has been a big part of every job I’ve had: parent, teacher, media specialist, elementary principal, and assistant superintendent. The first book I wrote in 1987 was a trade book for parents called How to Raise a Reader. My goal in that book was to communicate to parents the importance of reading aloud to their children on a daily basis as a powerful way to build vocabulary and background knowledge, as well as special bonds with their children.
There are statistics showing that if students aren’t reading proficiently by fourth grade, they’ll struggle most of their lives to catch up and they are more likely to drop out of school. Do you believe there are steps teachers can take to help students who have moved beyond fourth grade who are still struggling?
My very first priority is teaching all kids to read in grades PreK–2 and catching kids who struggle with one or more aspects of literacy before they fail by providing research-based curricula and interventions. All hands need to be on deck to make sure that every child learns to read, is able to read fluently, and loves to read by the end of second grade.
There are many research-based programs and interventions to help older struggling students but they require a commitment of time and resources. Many districts hire literacy coaches and intervention specialists to work with both students and teachers. Content teachers also need to be on board with literacy strategies that relate to their specific discipline.
Would you say the expectations of Common Core State Standards require districts to help teachers acquire a deeper understanding of literacy instruction?
Absolutely. I support the Common Core State Standards that relate to literacy. One of the biggest problems in schools and districts is the lack of coordination and articulation between grade levels, teachers, and content departments. The Common Core State Standards spell out very specifically what students need to be able to know and do at every level in terms of developing literacy. Teachers have a great deal of autonomy about the various methods they might use to achieve the goals in the standards. The standards are clear and concise, but they are challenging to translate into instruction that gets results. That’s why professional development and coaching are critical.
How much emphasis do you believe should be placed on professional development and coaching in helping teachers become better equipped in literacy instruction?
Professional development and coaching are essential. We are always playing catch-up in terms of providing the quality and amount of professional development and coaching for teachers. You can’t and won’t achieve results without highly effective instruction. Believe me, that doesn’t just happen when teachers get their diplomas and someone hands them a textbook and a set of standards. They may not know what is most effective in terms of instruction. They will do unto their students what was done unto them. Without professional development and coaching, everybody is just going through the motions and hoping for the best without any idea if what they’re doing will actually get results.
What are the differences between your quick reference guides Building Literacy Piece by Piece and The 7 Thinking Hats of Skilled Readers?
The major difference between these two guides is their scope and sequence. Building Literacy Piece by Piece sets forth the scope of literacy instruction and to some extent the sequence in which these various pieces are introduced and integrated throughout the grade levels. Primary grade teachers need background knowledge and training in teaching the basic skills of decoding and word identification. Upper grade teachers need more knowledge and training in teaching the comprehension strategies and building content knowledge. Administrators, coaches, and intervention specialists need background knowledge to know at which grade levels certain skills should be mastered and how to structure budget and time for interventions when they are needed. If your students’ literacy achievement is lagging, there is no doubt that one or more of the literacy puzzle pieces has been put in the wrong place or lost along the way. My guide provides all the pieces of the puzzle so educators can assess what’s missing in their curriculum and instruction.
The 7 Thinking Hats of Skilled Readers has a very limited scope and sequence that focuses specifically on one aspect of the literacy puzzle: comprehension. It suggests one instructional approach to use to introduce students to comprehension strategies. It provides all teachers with a detailed description of what the strategies look like in the brains of skilled readers.
How did you determine that there are seven cognitive strategies or hats to teaching literacy?
The cognitive strategies (with the exception of the Search and Select strategy that is my personal addition to the list) are research-based (Presley & Afflerbach, 1995). The qualitative research study asked: What is going on in the minds of highly skilled readers while they are reading challenging text? After identifying a set of highly skilled readers (adults with lots of background knowledge about various disciplines), the researchers interviewed each reader individually using an identical protocol. They found that the skilled readers used remarkably similar strategies to understand and remember what they were reading. Additional research shows that these same strategies can be modeled and taught for students.
The hats are not research-based or scientific; rather, they are metaphoric. Often students need some concrete examples to represent difficult concepts. The hats are just my way of helping students of any age conceptualize what is going on in their brains when they are reading.
You’ve held many positions in education. Do you believe your experiences as a classroom teacher as well as an administrator give you a unique perspective on literacy?
I do. Here’s my perspective. Literacy for all students requires instructional leadership, a laser-like focus on specific literacy outcomes, highly effective instruction, research-based curricula, collaboration, and high levels of trust. Over the years I have seen too many districts and schools fail because they didn’t have all of these elements in place. The biggest stumbling block for many is an unwillingness to assume responsibility for student outcomes and to do the extraordinarily hard and often discouraging work of finding the students who can’t read (no matter their age or grade level) and teaching them to read.
[i] Blankenship, John. (2013, November 8). Functional illiteracy continues to grow, but there is help. The Register-Herald. Retrieved from http://www.register-herald.com
[ii] Begin to Read. (n.d.). Literacy Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.begintoread.com/research/literacystatistics.html