Literacy Instruction: From ‘Best Practices’ to Centering Student Voices

I am thinking about the intersections of literacy instruction and learning that centers the voices of Black students.

I know that even as I am thinking about this, and sharing my own thoughts and questions, that I have been indoctrinated with racist tendencies that I have subconsciously absorbed: 10 Ways Good White People Can Help Black America (If ‘Good White People’ Exist)

I am thinking about how often we engage in discussions about the best ways to ‘teach’, that are deemed to be ‘best practices’. They look ideal on the surface, and are built from data that are considered to result in student success and achievement. These practices are often what is measured and monitored to determine if a teacher is a ‘good’ teacher or not. They are also considered the practices that will close the ‘gaps’ that exist in literacy for marginalized students. This could include, but not limited to practices such as

  • how we build effective lessons that get students thinking about a problem or concept, interact with the problem or concept, and then help them share and consolidate the key learning.
  • how teachers assess student understanding,
  • how comprehension skills are built, including eliciting evidence from the text to draw conclusions, making connections to the characters;
  • what texts are used and how they are used including the provision of leveled readers for students based on assessed reading levels
  • how students should read and write
  • how lessons are taught with the ‘best’ activities for all students
  • how lessons are consolidated based on discussion of other voices and ideas from specific texts and resources

This seemingly ideal organization of lessons can be a big part of a problem that promotes racist practices. Therefore, I want to think deeper and far beyond the ‘best practices’ to think about changing the how and what of we do, to thinking about the why and who in order to center the voices and experiences and histories Black students.

As I think about literacy, I think a lot about how to teach literacy comprehension and skills. Often, these skills and strategies are taught in isolation, or in relation to a text that centers whiteness. I think that we need to go beyond teaching the comprehension skills themselves – and instead harness the the rich content of the student’s own background knowledge, and co-create new opportunities to build upon the students own literate identities that already exist. I am still learning about the best ways to do this.

I am also making a connection to the research about leveled readers, and will share this one article here that explains it a bit more: Leveled Reading Groups Don’t Work. Why Aren’t We Talking About It?

What harm do leveled readers create for our students that we need to understand? Do leveled readers result in leveled lives? What students are privileged enough to succeed with the best-practices currently provided?

Why can’t we co-create literacy content with our students from personally lived experiences and stories? Why can’t we ‘play’ more with language to create meaningful texts for a variety of audiences? How can we provide students with opportunities to write themselves into the curriculum? Write themselves into the classroom? Center the lives of students right in the curriculum?

Can we center student’s own background knowledge, and co-construct new knowledge and experiences that facilitate richer literacy learning?

How can we harness mentor texts to help students learn to read and write from authors with similar ways of being in the world?

How can we help integrate social justice opportunities with students AND their families? How are families using literacy, social media and more to co-construct the discussions that center and engage Black families?

What do we know about the racist constructions of the best-practices, the language we use in our literacy programs, and who is able to succeed and achieve in literacy?

What if these best-practices actually serve to further racialize Black students in how they come to understand themselves as literate learners?

Do students have opportunities to also create the language and texts in learning environments?

What are we missing when our literacy instruction for marginalized students if it is only data-driven to ‘close the gap’? Does this become the foundation for the only ways that we interact with Black students? Indigenous students? Racialized students?

How can we begin to center the rich languages and literacies of Black voices right in the intellectual work.

Can Black students’ histories and identities and experiences be used to re-write the curriculum and de-center whiteness?

What does it mean to be a good student? What does it mean to be a ‘good’ reader or writer?

What does it mean to be a good teacher? What if great pedagogical practices are in place, but students are continually silenced? Humiliated?

Literacy is not just the ability to read and write. It also includes background knowlednge and experience, it includes social lives and emotions, it also includes how we compare literacy used among students and families, with the mainstream ‘school’ literacies.

What does it really mean to be literate?

What do education practices and pedagogies need to look like in order to center the cultural experiences of students?

What does this look like in early literacy versus adolescent literacy learning environments?

Do we center approaches based in white English canon, or are there other ways we can empower students. Are there other ‘best-practices’ that we can use to help students become the creators of the knowledge in our classrooms, and build on the literacy skills that students already have?

Can we help Black students write themselves into the classroom curriculum?

How do we help students understand and reflect on their own strengths as readers and writers? Above and beyond what is imposed from curriculum?

Are we really providing our students with regular opportunities to think of themselves as readers and writers in our schools?

Further, because we care very deeply about all of the students we teach, how can we use texts and other resources that help students to understand how we look at literacy from white, settler, colonial perspectives – yet in a way that does not blame white students, or shame them. Instead, how can all students develop agency to center voices that have not been included in our curriculum?

In addition, I feel the same way about helping educators learn. Can educators learn that literacy instruction is frought with racist beliefs and practices, and work for greater equity and justice without being shamed? How can all educators develop agency to center voices that have not been included in our curriculum?

These are a lot of questions.

I am just scratching the surface of my learning.

I have to say that I would appreciate having job-embedded access to knowledgeable facilitator to be able to receive coaching and guidance on my own practice moving forward to center Black lives, and to focus #BlackLivesMatter in my own coaching practice. I believe that this would be a key resource to support job-embedded learning that goes beyond webinars and one-time courses or workshops.

Any helpful comments, resources, supports to help us along our own journeys are much appreciated,

Assessment Literacy – via Lyn Sharratt

Feedback in Online Learning Environments – Canadian School Libraries Journal

Feedback in Online Learning Environments – Canadian School Libraries Journal
— Read on

Guided Reading with Adolescent Readers

What are the best strategies for teaching and facilitating learning with Adolescent readers? There is a dearth of research that discusses Guided Reading with Adolescent students, but we do know that differentiation and equity are essential. There is a very great potential with this practice if we can learn to implement effectively. If we hear the words ‘Guided Reading’, most teachers will have a basic ‘head-nodding’ understanding of what it is, but outside of the younger elementary grades, there does not exist a rich wealth of research into Guided Reading with Adolescents. Without a more in-depth understanding, it will not be implemented in our classrooms.

How can we take what we know about Guided Reading, and use our knowledge of Adolescent readers, to determine how to implement this activity in the classroom?

What is Guided Reading?

Basically, Guided Reading is not its own program — rather it is part of a broader ‘Comprehensive Literacy’ framework that implements a Gradual Release of Responsibility from Modelled to Shared to Guided to Independent Reading.

It is defined by features including levelled texts, small-group instruction, teaching and prompting of effective reading strategies, independent activities for those not involved in guided reading. Because there is not enough time in the day to meet with all students individually, Guided Reading is a flexible option for supporting students with reading comprehension. The groups are usually comprised of 3–8 students. It is comprised of before, during and after reading strategies. Before Reading strategies include building Learning Goals and Success Criteria, activating prior knowledge, building background knowledge, setting a purpose for reading, using graphic organizers, KWL charts. During Reading strategies include identifying connections to personal experiences, asking questions, discussing vocabulary, making inferences, teaching strategies for unfamiliar words, sharing reactions, and providing feedbackAfter Reading strategies include consolidating the key learning, engaging in self-assessments, and teacher mini-assessments, feedback, planning next steps for student learning.

It is also absolutely essential that the grouping arrangements be flexible, temporary, and change based on progress monitoring and assessment. This is key for promoting differentiation and equity.

Most importantly, it needs to be a flexible framework that supports you in your responsive instruction and assessment strategies.

Why Guided Reading?

A common issue for all teachers is the difficulty of being able to meet the range of needs that occur in each classroom. This includes, and is not limited to, students with identified learning disabilities, different needs associated with attention-deficit, autism spectrum, fetal alcohol, hearing impairment, ELL, social and behavioural problems, suspected unidentified disabilities, average achievement levels, attendance issues, transience, trauma, cross-cultural differences, students needing enrichment, and gifted students — and infinite combinations of all of the above and more.

When it comes down to it, it is the teachers themselves who are directly affected by their unique range of needs. As such, it is the teachers themselves that need key strategies that will need to be actively engaged in assessing, reflecting on, and improving their own practice.

If done well, Guided Reading has the ability to promote differentiation AND equity through small group reading opportunities.

Why are some students good at comprehension and why do others have difficulty?

4 possible reasons that students will encounter difficulty with reading:

1. Low knowledge of vocabulary

2. Inadequate word recognition strategies

3. Lack of schemata or background knowledge to interpret text

4. Poor use of strategies to comprehend what they are reading

Let’s look for a moment at # 4. What can teachers do to help students use strong strategies that support comprehension?

Students with difficulties in reading comprehension, need to engage in strategies including:

· re-reading the text

· using background knowledge and schemas

· developing metacognition

· becoming assessment-capable learners who can tell whether they have comprehended it or not

We really want adolescents to really learn to harness their metacognition and self-Assessment skills that they will need both now – and for the rest of their lives.

A repertoire of roles and activities that the Teacher can use in Guided Reading, depending on the situation:

· Coach

· Modelling/demonstrating — make learning visible

· Prompting

· Questioning students

· Eliciting questions from students

· Listening

· Activating background knowledge and schemas

· Creating mental images

· Telling — students information in an abstract way without telling them what to do

· Explaining — clarifying how to do something — direct explanation

· Promoting engagement in discussion

· Promoting awareness of text structures

The reading strategies need to be chosen based on student needs, and teacher observations during guided reading.

The following is a basic structure you can use for a 15–30 min Guided Reading session:

1. Introduce the Learning Goals, and co-create Success criteria

2. Teacher introduces text, and engage students in pre-reading activities

3. Students read silently, some may be asked to read in a whisper or quiet reading

4. Question, prompt model and during reading strategies. Be careful not to make this a solely teacher-led session. Especially with adolescents.

5. After reading strategies and discussions


Finally, don’t forget to assess your students. Guided Reading provides a great opportunity to Triangulate other data you may have from other benchmark assessments, standards-based assessments, and observations. You can record and track what happens in Guided Reading in a personalized way that works best with you (checklist with learning goals and success criteria, google forms, anecdotal organizers etc.) with data from other group reflection notes, teacher journals, student conferences, classroom observations, assessments and more.


Guided Reading is not without its challenges. It is best to be responsive to the needs of your own students and situation, rather than feel you need to create that ‘ideal state’ of Guided Reading in your classroom. There are very real challenges including insufficient time to work with each of the guided reading groups, insufficient space for multiple groups, disruptions, attendance, figuring out what to do with the other students, lack of motivation, diverse range of needs. The reality is that these challenges exist everywhere, and we need to figure out for ourselves how Guided Reading could and should look in our own unique situations.

Words of Caution:

It is best not to consistently group students in the same ways all the time. This begins to turn into a traditional model of pulling-out students for instruction, and having separate classes, which are both models that have not demonstrated effectiveness. It also becomes a situation that the opposite of differentiation and does not promote equity.

Also, especially with adolescents, it is essential as Teachers to avoid leading the entire discussion. It is important to help students lead the questions and discussions themselves or make strides to helping them take this responsibility. It supports metacognition, and also the very important role of the Adolescent reader in developing their own identities as readers, and as people.

Two Things to think about moving forward:

1. what will you do as a teacher to support differentiation, equity, and reading comprehension skills with your adolescent readers?

2. What are the types and frequencies of ‘talk’ that you will help students engage in?

Deb McCallum

Effective Reading Instruction

What is Effective Reading Instruction?

There are many students who will do well in spite of teachers, and despite of us as well. However, the most effective teachers are also able to be effective with the lower-achieving students. This has always been an equity issue when we fail to meet the needs of all students, but particularly those who are marginalized.

When we dive into multiple sources of data, we often can see that there are key practices that exemplary teachers engage in that are great for all students, but absolutely essential for those students who struggle with literacy in our schools. Often, the students who struggle are also marginalized in some way, and it is up to teachers to make the real differences in their lives.

What does a successful reading experience look like? It looks like students performing with a high-level of accuracy, fluency and comprehension. It is the high-accuracy, fluent and easily comprehended reading that provides the opportunities to integrate complex skills and strategies into an automatic, independent reading process.

Excellent readers can also self-monitor for understanding, summarize while reading and edit while composing.

What does the research say about how to do this?

Can students who struggle with reading become successful readers? Yes! The lowest achievers benefit the most from exemplary teachers, when they can spend 50% of the day purposefully reading with books and texts that they can actually read, with teachers engaged in explicit instructional practices.

What are the practices that make teachers particularly effective for all students, but especially struggling readers? What are the exemplary practices that work? According to Arlington (2002), the following practices are those that exemplary teachers put in place:

  • Students are actively reading and writing at least 50% of the day
    • This includes language and math
  • Explicit demonstrations of skills and strategies/modelling
  • Think-Alouds
  • Line-by-line analyses of different types of text
  • More student talk between teacher and student, and student to student
  • Longer assignments, less shorter tasks
  • Writing tasks that last for 10 days or more
  • Individual and small-group research projects
  • Integration of several content areas
  • More complex tasks that span several content areas
  • Work that requires more self-regulation of students
  • Student choice and voice – ‘managed choice’ makes it difficult for peers to compare and rank each other (as can be done when students compare identical worksheets and templates)
  • Extensive and explicit practice including consolidation of skills and strategies, more guided reading, more independent reading, and more explicit math reading
  • Less time on copying definitions, less time completing ‘after-reading’ comprehension worksheets, less time on ‘stuff’
  • Activating student background knowledge before reading, and having rich discussions after reading

Engaging a classroom in rich reading discussion sounds like it is common sense, however, according to Allington (2002), data demonstrates that the dominant pattern of classroom talk tends to be the teacher posing questions, having students respond, and then teachers verifying and correcting the students. Whether during the math block, or the literacy block, this is definitely a pattern that continues to dominate many classrooms. This also takes the onus off of the students to listen to each other, and to try to understand what others are thinking. Yet, it is a practice that still permeates school. Pre-packages lessons are also problematic for promoting rich classroom discourse.

Exemplary teaching cannot be packaged. It is responsive.

Prepackaged instructional handouts/kits etc are not useful for the explicit teaching of skills or strategies. It is also not equitable or responsive to purchase units online to give to our students to fill out and complete. Therefore, it is essential to think deeper about any worksheets we give our students. For example, if you are providing students with a worksheet to fill in, and they get the answers right, they are not engaging in an instructional activity – they are engaging in an assessment activity of who can fill the work in and who is experiencing difficulty. While this can work sometimes in formative ways, an graphic organizers may be essential to help some students organize thinking, and build executive functioning skills, worksheets are just not an exemplary instructional practice.

Strong instructional practices are essential for students – especially those who are struggling, or considered low-achieving. 

Library, Sky, Birds, Mystical, Clouds

Students need a very rich supply of books, and a rich supply of books that they can successfully read. Aside from books for instructional purposes (which are indeed necessary), students require many more available books that are at their developmental level. For students to become independent and proficient readers, they require copious amounts of successful reading experiences. It is important to consider not just how to ensure that classrooms and libraries have these book supplies, but also how to use them effectively each and every day.

When all is said and done, reading proficiency has to rest with the exemplary practices of the classroom teacher. While there are excellent programs out their to support teachers and students, exemplary teaching in literacy is about being responsive to students needs, and providing strong and responsive literacy programs where at least 50% of the day is devoted to reading and writing – in any subject.

Deb McCallum


Arlington, R. (2002). What I’ve learned about effective reading instruction: From a decade of studying exemplary elementary classroom teachers. Phi Delta Kappan. pp 740 – 747

Leadership & Goal Setting

Goal setting is an essential practice when coaching and engaging in Instructional Leadership. However, it can also be one of the most difficult practices to engage in. This is because goal setting can be laden with so many different past expectations, experiences and beliefs. What needs to happen to help make goal-setting a truly meaningful experience and practice?

First, it is my belief that leadership means starting where the teachers are at with their thinking, and helping them to reach their goals with their students. This is a collaborative professional development opportunity to help us all continue to grow in our practice. If we can co-construct effective goals for the learning processes with the students, then we will be better equipped to monitor student learning.

Goal setting can be a natural extension of meeting teachers where they are at, and helping them to have a voice-an essential part of the process for collaborating and improving student learning.

However, I find it can also be very difficult to co-construct goals sometimes. While it is not my role to make teachers set personal goals, I do believe in the importance of setting goals that promote student learning. However, goal-setting can become challenging, depending on the various beliefs, expectations or past-experiences with goal-setting.

The term ‘goal-setting’ is sometimes laden with many different messages, expectations or past experiences that have built up, and existed in the past. These expectations and past understandings can create an uncomfortable situation for teachers to engage in goal-setting. Particularly in math, where math anxiety has grown out of reinforcement of memorization and speed as the signs of a good mathematician.

What are some of the situations that we might be facing when it comes to goal setting? First, some may have an underlying belief that that goal setting occurs when someone is ineffective in their role, or hasn’t learned what they need to know to do their job. Some may also believe that their goals have to be based on what they think others expect of them, or may believe that they will be evaluated on their goal setting. Goal-setting to others may mean that their identity as a professional is at risk. Goal-setting may not lead to traditional definitions of what success should look like either. Further, if someone already does not feel much self-efficacy about teaching math, or any other subject, then they may truly not know where to start and feel vulnerable to find a goal that might be best for them or their students. Goal-setting might also just feel like an impossible task among the differing pressures around teachers, different personalities, or political climate. Finally, the pressure around math that has traditionally, and still continues to exist in math, has produced much fear and anxiety around math itself – let alone goal setting in math. Thinking about these issues can make the best of us feel like goal-setting is a very risky activity.

But I still believe we can work together successfully to overcome these challenges.

Therefore, it is an important leadership process to be able to meet someone where they are at and help them set goals for student learning, that are aligned with broader school and district goals – but that aren’t about pleasing someone else, or the powers that be. Building relationships is key. We can also help foster safety to help make it clear that goal setting is something we all need to do because our students are always changing and evolving each year, and knowledge is always changing and evolving in our world. Each situation will require different relationships.

I also think about the importance of modelling goal-setting for myself, and sharing my own goals with those I work with – and inviting help and feedback with those so we all can continue to meet the ever-changing needs of our students. Modelling our goal setting for others, and inviting them into the process, could be important for moving forward.

One of the goal areas that I am personally working on and thinking about, and will be articulating this year, is about is how to help develop student assessment abilities, especially how they can use assessment and feedback practices to truly understand themselves as learners. How can I focus my teaching cycles to help harness student assessment capabilities? What evidence will I gather for that? What will this look like in the classrooms I support? How will I center my teaching cycles in a way to harness student assessment?

Supporting goal setting is an important leadership activity for everyone. Goal setting really to become a tool that helps to build trust and common understandings. This is something that I will be thinking about deeply, and setting personal goals around, as we grow together throughout the school year. I hope to hear about others goal-setting practices and challenges, and perhaps even some stories that will help us all move forward together.

What are your own personal goals for your math programming this year – for yourself or your students?

What leadership stories do you have that can help shed light on goal-setting in math?

Deborah McCallum

Director Reflections on a Day of Swimming in the Deep End

Director Reflections on a Day of Swimming in the Deep End
— Read on

Swimming in the Deep End: A Day with Jennifer Abrams

This particular book is about the professional deep-end work we do in schools: the projects we undertake, the initiatives we are tasked to move forward with, the teams we are in charge of. What I hope this book will do is support you in seeing what the deep-end skills, capacities, and mindsets look for you in your context, with your work as an ever-learning education leader-someone who is growing his or her leadership skills to be effective within your school or organization, no matter your role. If you are looking for some strategies to stay afloat in the deep end, dive on in.” ~ Jennifer Abrams

On Tuesday Aug. 20, In partnership between Learning Forward Ontario and the Ontario Principals’ Council, I had the privilege of being part a very special event with Jennifer Abrams, author of Swimming in the Deep End. Her session, entitled ‘Swimming in the Deep End: What does it take?’, was excellent. We had the opportunity to learn about how we would each go about developing the educational leadership skills that we need to create change within our schools.

As an Instructional Coach, I was able to think deeply about what skills I need to develop, as they pertains to my own unique situation, and my own work both as a coach and from my own initiative I will be leading for my PQP practicum this fall.

Her Deep-end self-assessment of 4 Foundational Skills was invaluable to me to begin to think about where I felt I needed to focus my own learning on. The 4 Skills include:

  1. Thinking before you speak
  2. Preempting Resistance
  3. Responding to Resistance
  4. Managing Oneself Through Change and Resistance.

Resistance is a very broad category, and so I believe it is important to become clear as to what exactly about resistance we might find ourselves managing, and how we can do that. Jennifer Abrams led us through an entire day of work that enabled us to think through this as they pertain to our own situations and lenses. It is not a matter of ‘if’ you will experience resistance, but ‘when’ you will face resistance. This is because there are so many needs, values, goals and polarities at play that need to be aligned. It is very important to me that I can now specifically think about how I can understand these challenges that will be inherent in my own initiatives, and in those of my school board that I am responsible for.

It is one thing to meet people where they are at – this is essential to building relationships. It is another issue to swim in the deep end and communicate in ways that could create discomfort for the purposes of learning, and the purposes of helping our students achieve the best education they can. As Jennifer said, we are also in the business of thinking about the adults we work with, and not just the students. We are developing and supporting those teachers who in turn support the students. How will I provide opportunities to help them see that they are making an impact and developing? How will I help provide the professional learning that will help make changes for the betterment of the students?

My own philosophy is that learning is hard, challenging and uncomfortable, and we have to push ourselves through it in order to learn. Some people say that we always need to have strong relationships first in order to build trust. However, I have also come to believe that we can also build strong relationships based on trust by Swimming in the Deep End together. Depending upon the people we are learning with, I do think that some of the strongest learning comes from working through challenging circumstances together, with willing spirits.

In my role as an Instructional Coach, yes we are working to shape quality learning experiences for the students, however, we are also deeply working with the adults, for the sake of the students. We are developing and supporting those who support the students. We provide those opportunities to help teachers see how they are making an impact and developing in their professional practice for the students. We think about what is the professional learning that we will provide at our school. Therefore, I ask myself about how we are growing and teaming while making changes for the sake of the students? I have learned with Jennifer that this includes the ability to embed regular moments of reflection.

Implementing regular moments of reflection reminds me of the Coaching/Teaching Cycles we engage with in our practice, in our school board SCDSB. We call it co-planning, co-teaching and co-debriefing. To me, the debrief is the most important component.

I have found through personal experience that coaching is not nearly rich enough unless there is formal time set aside for a rich debrief session. This is the part of the action plan were we can truly stop and reflect. It takes courage to just sit, look back on the lesson. Courage to recognize what might not have done as well as we had hoped, to look at what the data is telling us through, look back and look ahead. This is the input that is essential to improving and moving forward. I really appreciate that Jennifer highlights the importance of setting up regular moments for true reflection for these very reasons.

Something else that really stood out to me was Jennifer Abram’s inter-generational work. It suddenly hit me that the new teachers are 20 years younger than I am, and that we have grown up in completely different worlds. (I have no idea how this happened, lol). I obviously coach all age groups, but to realize that new teachers have grown up in a different world, it is important to think about the implications of this in terms of how I coach.

It resonated with me that Jennifer Abrams was discussing the importance of understanding what others values are and how they need to align with the school and board goals, but also to articulate clearly how they will maintain autonomy over their practice.

I am now also thinking deeper about how I will plan my own initiatives and deliver the key messages. As I embark on my PQP Practicum this school year in my role as an Instructional Coach, I will be continually revisiting and reflecting upon the components of Jennifer’s Deep-end self-assessment (that you can find in her book, Swimming in the Deep End) and her four foundational skills: a) Thinking before you speak, b) Preempting resistance, c) Responding to Resistance, d) Managing Oneself through Change and Resistance.

I am very excited to take my Learning Forward this year after this wonderful session with Jennifer Abrams.

Thank you everyone for a wonderful day,

Deb McCallum

Aug, 2019

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