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What Can You Do to Improve Your Literacy Instruction This Fall?

Updated on
Modified on August 2, 2023
  • Literacy Instruction
  • Reading
  • Writing

For decades, we’ve been trying to improve students’ reading comprehension and writing ability. But we haven’t seen much in terms of results. On national tests, about 66 percent of students have consistently scored below proficient in reading—and almost 75 percent have scored below proficient in writing. For some student subgroups, those statistics are even worse. Clearly, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working.

When it comes to reading comprehension, the evidence indicates we need to move away from the standard approach: Having students spend hours every week practicing comprehension skills and strategies, like “making inferences,” using easy-to-read books on random topics. That approach overlooks a key ingredient in reading comprehension: Knowledge.

Studies show readers who have more knowledge—whether it’s knowledge of the topic they’re reading about or general academic knowledge and vocabulary—also have better reading comprehension. In fact, that kind of knowledge is far more important to comprehension than abstract comprehension skill.

So, to boost students’ reading comprehension, we need to focus less on skills and more on building knowledge and vocabulary. A great way to do that is by immersing students in topics in social studies and science as well as literature.

If teachers put the content of texts on those topics in the foreground and ask questions designed to spur students to think analytically about that content, the comprehension skills we want them to acquire will follow. And students are often far more engaged in what they’re learning.

Knowledge has also been the missing key ingredient in writing instruction. It’s hard to read about a topic you don’t know much about, but it’s virtually impossible to write about one! And yet, many writing curricula with separate topics ask students to do just that.

Another approach is to have students write about their personal experiences or opinions—which they do have knowledge about. But if we do that, we’re not using writing to deepen the knowledge we want students to acquire—the knowledge covered in the core curriculum. Studies have shown that when students write about what they’re learning, it significantly improves their comprehension and retention of the information, in any subject and at any grade level.

For many students, the standard approach to literacy instruction has only made reading and writing even harder than they need to be. Enabling students to read and write about topics they’ve already learned something about can not only improve their literacy ability, but it can also change their concepts of who they are and what they’re capable of doing.

There are five practical, concrete steps all classroom teachers can take to build students’ knowledge and unlock their true potential as readers, writers, and learners. Please join me for the webinar, “Top 5 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Literacy Instruction,” at 2 p.m. (CT), Wednesday, August 9, to find out what those steps are—and why they can be so powerful.
About the Author
Natalie Wexler
Natalie Wexler
Education Writer and Author

Natalie Wexler is an education writer and the author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—And How to Fix It (Avery 2019). She is also the co-author, with Judith C. Hochman, of The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades (Jossey-Bass, 2017), and a senior contributor to the education channel on Forbes.com. Her newsletter, Minding the Gap, on Substack, is available for free. Click here to view past posts and subscribe.

Her articles and essays about education and other topics have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, the MIT Technology Review, The American Scholar, and other publications. She has spoken about education before a variety of groups and appeared on a number of TV and radio shows, including Morning Joe and NPR’s On Point and 1A.

She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University, a Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Sussex (UK), and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked as a reporter, a Supreme Court law clerk, a lawyer, and a legal historian. The author of three novels, she lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and has two adult children.

Learn more about Natalie Wexler