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The Three Essential Elements of Literacy Instruction

When it comes to creating the perfect literacy curriculum, there is no set recipe. It takes a unique blend of components to get it just right for each class, or each student. And for the individual teacher, the instruction itself may be served a little differently, with a secret ingredient added to make the finished concoction that much more engaging — and effective.

However, there are several staple ingredients that literacy instruction must have to be the most effective. So what are these main elements? And what might they look like in practice?

To answer this question, we published a series of posts over the course of the year, featuring the esteemed authors and educators who helped guide the creation of our beloved Wonders curriculum. Together, they presented the three most important elements of strong literacy instruction.

1) Text Quality and Text Complexity

In the first part of the series, Wonders author Dr. Tim Shanahan, and McGraw Hill Senior National Literacy Specialist, John Slagle, discussed the essential concepts of text quality and complexity.

Text quality and complexity are very different concepts, but both form the foundation of a strong literacy curriculum. Text quality is subjective and is often the content most valued by our society, content that is thought to have depth and texture and help develop habits of mind. Meanwhile, text complexity refers to a text’s difficulty or sophistication in terms of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and structure. When paired together, text quality and complexity aid students in developing a deep understanding of cultural values and a strong command of vocabulary and grammar.

Read on for more on text quality and complexity and how they are visible across various classrooms and grade levels.

2) Building Knowledge

In part two, John Slagle examined the essential concept of building knowledge with Wonders authors Dr. Doug Fisher and Dr. Donald Bear.

Building knowledge is a critical part of literacy instruction as it equips learners with the context and background knowledge they need to fully engage with the texts they are reading. When students have enough background knowledge, they are able to read increasingly complex texts that build on one another across a unit. The more students know, the more they are able to achieve at tasks and assessments. It is also a strong indicator of a student’s future success in higher grades. One of the most effective ways of building background knowledge is through vocabulary lessons, which allow students to further develop an understanding of concepts and ideas, and improves reading comprehension.

See below for more on building knowledge and how vocabulary is an important tool for enhancing literacy.

3) Usability

In part three of the series, Learning Scientist Dr. Annie Snyder explored why the usability of a literacy curriculum matters.

Defining the usability of a curriculum can be challenging, but the science of learning can help us understand what it might look like in a classroom:

  • The first step is for the educator to consider lesson structure and pacing, which may involve in-program supports for pacing the learning experience, and well-defined patterns and structures for engaging in each lesson.
  • Second, an educator should have a deep understanding of the learning standards before they can build an appropriate roadmap for these standards.
  • Third, teachers and students should have secure access to data throughout a learning experience that indicates how teachers can improve their teaching and students can enhance their learning
  • Fourth, instruction should be designed and equipped with materials that support a wide range of teaching and learning needs
  • And fifth, the technology components of the curriculum must be accessible and available.

Read on to learn how to boost the usability of your literacy curriculum.

Text quality and complexity, knowledge building, and usability are critical literacy components that align with the Gateways described by EdReports. Wonders ©2020 received positive marks in all three areas: Text Quality and Complexity, Building Knowledge, and Usability.

Learn more about Wonders below:

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McGraw Hill

McGraw Hill


Helping educators and students find their path to what’s possible. No matter where the starting point may be.