In 2014, the Virginia State Reading Association (VSRA) created strategic goals as part of our transformation process alongside ILA—then the International Reading Association. One of our goals was to create an initiative that supported a specific area of literacy instruction in our state.
Through discussion with the Virginia Department of Education, our focus became nonfiction. In looking at statewide tests—graphs, charts, and maps appeared to be the most challenging to students—and thinking about students’ comprehension of nonfiction texts, we began to dive more deeply into our topic, and we narrowed our focus to informational texts.
We combined the I in informational and the T in texts to create the acronym in the title of our initiative: “Got IT?”
Developing Got IT?
Authors of informational texts use various formatting tools such as boldface, italics, color, captions, headings and subheadings, and graphics. These tools require readers to understand why the author uses them and how they inform readers of new information. Informational texts provide needed opportunities to support inference, cause and effect, and drawing conclusions skills that, regardless of fiction or nonfiction passages, are all areas that seem to need support on our statewide tests.
Our Got IT? mission is to explore this genre in depth, provide professional development opportunities for our members, and clarify misconceptions within the genre. In addition, we aim to improve students’ ability to navigate and to compose informational texts by improving their comprehension of how text features, graphics, and text structures work.
The first task for us after creating a timeline of what we wanted to accomplish was to lay the foundation for what informational text is so that we are all using the same language. Just like in an informational text, we created a glossary of terms with definitions we use within our work on our statewide initiative. Terms such as flowcharts, graphics, cross-section diagrams, insets, sidebars, and surface diagrams are among a list of 20 technical terms found within informational texts. This glossary list is on our website and can be disseminated to parents and educators across Virginia.
Throughout this past year, we completed the following items and activities to support our initiative and unify our focus.
Slover Library kickoff
Our kickoff activity was held at the Slover Library in Norfolk, VA, in August 2015. This was the first VSRA Board of Directors meeting for our new year. Members of the Board developed activities with informational texts and read books to students. For K–2 students, we introduced charts, diagrams, captions, and informational text vocabulary. For grades 3–5, we focused on bold wording, italics, the table of contents and index, headings, and informational text vocabulary. For the middle school level, we discussed the index and informational text vocabulary.
We spoke with parents about the types of informational texts their children may see in school. All students were invited to participate in a “make and take” workshop, and all participants were able to choose informational texts to take home with them. Bare Books, Lakeshore Publishing, Really Good Stuff, and Scholastic provided us with materials to give to students who attended.
Professional development activities
In the fall of 2015, our Leadership Team worked to determine activities we could accomplish throughout the year to support the initiative. For example, the Public Relations Committee hosted a Twitter chat to focus on informational texts used in the classroom. The Parents and Reading Committee focused on distributing informational texts to parents and students at our annual conference. The Young Writers Committee created a Got IT? writing contest with a focus of students producing informational texts about their summer vacations.
Our November 2015 Leadership Meeting focused completely on our initiative. We collaborated with the Virginia Science Museum, Radford University, and Lakeshore Publishing—all of which either provided staff development or donated materials. For example, the Virginia Science Museum shared online resources available to parents, students, and educators, while Radford University shared a list of professional informational science texts for educators.
Also during the meeting, we asked the leaders of our local councils and committee chairs to form four small groups based on their localities within the state. We call these groups “quads.” The purpose is for groups of leaders who live near each other to develop lists of resources around our state. Leaders in the quads identified authors, maps, science museums, local attractions, and anything that would support the Got IT? initiative. We combined the information and published it on our website so parents and educators would have access to resources in their local communities.
Last winter, we identified informational texts in our Virginia Readers’ Choice List, and we’ve developed a partnership with The Nature Generation, another nonprofit, to consider some of their award-winning books on next year’s voting ballot.
During our conference in March, we placed an emphasis on informational texts by inviting a representative from the Virginia Department of Education, who provided updates on our statewide tests, and speakers such as Nell Duke and Donalyn Miller, who shared insight on informational texts that support instruction.
The future of Got IT?
Our plan is to continue promoting our initiative and to capitalize on the idea of quads. We are hoping that we will be able to build strong collaboration among counties and local councils in the quads and that they may work together to provide professional development opportunities for members in their areas.
We also hope they may want to cross over the boundary lines so we can continue working together to reduce illiteracy across our state.
Tiffany Erdos Brocious is the 2015–2016 Virginia State Reading Association (VSRA) President. During her presidency, VSRA received the ILA Distinguished Council Award. An ILA member since 1991, she is a K–5 literacy coach for Loudoun County Public Schools.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
The Texas Association for Literacy Education (TALE) is a state-level chartered ILA council that was recently recognized with ILA’s 2015–2016 Advocacy Award. To qualify for this award, state and provincial councils must have a fully functioning legislative committee and a particular issue that the council addressed through targeted legislative advocacy activities.
We believe taking an active role in educational advocacy is essential for the effective influencing of public educational policy.
TALE began its journey in July 2014 with the creation of a fully functioning Advocacy Development Committee that consisted of a director and four active committee members. The mission was to educate about, advocate for, and support the importance of lifelong literacy learning in and through education by building alliances and creating a network among literacy educators and other educational stakeholders.
Identifying the issues at hand
During the 2014–2015 membership year, TALE’s Advocacy Development Committee identified two specific issues to address.
First, TALE sought to create awareness and promote action among its membership with several public education topics that were addressed during the 84th Texas Legislative Session, such as the expansion and improvement of pre-K programs and alternatives to high-stakes testing.
The second issue was the commencement of the Texas State Board of Education’s (SBOE) review and revision process for the mandatory state standards—the English Language Arts and Reading Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (ELAR TEKS)—which delineate the required knowledge and skills for students in kindergarten through grade 12.
TALE became an active participant in a statewide literacy coalition consisting of literacy organizations that work collaboratively with other stakeholders. Included were Coalition of Reading and English Supervisors of Texas, National Writing Project of Texas, Texas Association for Bilingual Education, Texas Association for the Improvement of Reading, and Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts. We also worked with the Texas Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and Texas Association of School Administrators.
Each group worked with other literacy stakeholders—community members, parents, and publishers of state-approved education materials—to advocate ELAR TEKS revisions and provide feedback.
Educating our members
TALE used a variety of outlets, both print based and electronic. We published articles in quarterly newsletters, the Texas Journal of Literacy Education peer-reviewed journal, and the proceedings from TALE’s annual conference. We also kept members informed by sending e-mails and posting relevant information on an established advocacy website.
With the ELAR TEKS review and revision process, TALE collaborated with the literacy coalition to develop and distribute advocacy resource packets among all SBOE members. These packets included a joint letter, suggested framework for the ELAR TEKS, and talking points for testimony given at an SBOE committee meeting.
The framework identified high-priority learning standards that emphasized depth over breadth, a clear description of content and depth of knowledge, and skills necessary for student success on state standardized assessments and for fostering college and career readiness. TALE also held coalition workshops for framework creation and sent representatives to attend and observe SBOE committee meetings, which resulted in revisions made to the framework.
For example, the new framework embodied the interconnectedness of the English language arts and integrated the following strands within each grade level: foundational language skills, comprehension, response, collaboration, multiple genres, author's purpose and craft, composition and presentation, and inquiry and research.
Organizing our efforts
TALE demonstrated an organizational plan that promoted a commitment to building advocacy skills within its membership by establishing an advisory board for the Advocacy Development Committee, which included TALE’s executive officers and board members.
During monthly board meetings, the director of the Advocacy Development Committee reported on the committee’s activities. Communicating information among members is critical, so TALE established procedures to streamline dissemination of information among its members, such as e-mailing legislative action alerts and communications encouraging members to contact their elected officials regarding specific legislative issues.
TALE’s organizational plan also included creating a service network of 30 literacy experts throughout Texas as part of TALE’s involvement with the literacy coalition. This network’s purpose was to elicit feedback from K–12 teachers, administrators, and central office staff members regarding the proposed revisions to the ELAR TEKS. Organized by grade bands, the network examined proposed revisions within their assigned band and provided feedback addressing what they liked and what needed to be changed.
Feedback obtained was compiled and shared with the statewide literacy coalition.
As TALE grows, we remain dedicated to our ongoing, strategic advocacy efforts. Our success comes from two main aspects: (1) identifying issues that require significant advocacy efforts and employing strategies that educate, organize, and activate, and (2) incorporating a strong collaborative spirit into advocacy work.
Advocacy efforts must be tailored to state and provincial councils’ unique needs and diverse challenges in order to effectively influence public educational policy.
Advocacy work truly takes a village, and we have built many collaborative relationships within our literacy community. Creating and maintaining relationships among council members and others is essential to advancing these efforts.
Laurie A. Sharp, an ILA member since 2002, is the Dr. John G. O’Brien Distinguished Chair in Education at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, TX. Along with serving as president-elect of TALE during the 2016–2017 membership year, she is the director of the Advocacy Development Committee. Roberta D. Raymond is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Houston–Clear Lake in Houston, TX. She is the past-president of TALE during the 2016–2017 membership year.
The spring of 2015 was a momentous one for Arizona State University (ASU). It was when we saw the first class of students graduate from Arizona State University Preparatory Academy-Phoenix (ASU Prep), an urban public K–12 school chartered by ASU.
Teachers, administrators, and students alike worked diligently throughout the inaugural class’s four years of high school to prepare them for success in college; however, questions remained as to how the largely first-generation group of college students would fare.
Josephine Marsh, associate professor, professor-in-residence at ASU Prep, and advisor to ASU’s Beta Beta chapter of Alpha Upsilon Alpha (AUA), ILA’s honor society, raised this concern and voiced a solution—pairing up these students with AUA mentors.
It was an ambitious idea, but we wrapped up our first year of the mentorship program this spring—and we learned a lot in the process.
We started with research
All members of our AUA chapter are in either literacy or educational policy doctoral programs, and many previously taught or worked with students in out-of-school settings. AUA members quickly agreed to develop the mentoring program and began planning this exciting service project and research opportunity.
We first surveyed the ASU Prep seniors to determine their interest. We wanted to know if they would participate, their preferences for mentoring (in-person, over text or e-mail, small group or one on one, etc.), and their concerns about starting college.
Results showed 87% of the 98 seniors were concerned about keeping up with their college coursework, 91% were concerned with time management in college, and 89% worried about taking on debt and managing their money. Of those surveyed, 90% expressed an interest in participating in the program.
After reviewing results, three AUA members conducted a focus group interview with seven seniors attending either in-state universities or community colleges to uncover more specific concerns and develop a plan for supporting students during their freshman year.
We followed up, and made adjustments, throughout the year
As the ASU Prep graduates started their first year at community colleges and universities, we began by having informal gatherings for alumni to socialize and sign up to participate in our program. We reached out to students through e-mail and through their high school teachers, offering to be points of contact and sounding boards as they started college.
AUA members met with ASU’s Office of Student Services and Financial Aid to learn about the programs available for undergraduates and the financial aid process for freshmen. Students interested in mentoring were matched with an AUA member who kept in contact and served as the student’s mentor for the academic year.
In the fall, our mentee numbers were small (7) compared with the larger graduating class (98). Wanting to know how the larger group was faring, we created a midterm survey aimed at discovering how many credits students were enrolled in, if they had dropped or withdrawn any classes and why, how they perceived their academic performance so far, what college resources and supports they accessed, and if they felt a sense of belonging at their schools.
We administered the survey through e-mail and an ASU Prep alumni Facebook group. The 19 responses indicated only 4 students had dropped or withdrawn from a class, and while 7 were confident in the academic performance, a majority reported feeling overwhelmed with their coursework. Most students had reached out to some type of on-campus service like tutoring or advising, and 10 out of 19 students reported feeling a sense of belonging.
Using the results of the survey, I, as AUA president and lead mentor, created monthly topics the AUA members could discuss with their mentees such as studying and homework tips, staying healthy in college, planning for final exams and projects, and meeting with advisors for class registration.
We had a head start on next year
In the spring, AUA members were concerned by the number of students not participating in the program and thought that by forming relationships then with the current ASU Prep seniors, the class of 2016, students would be more likely to participate.
ASU Prep offers a senior Capstone class, a course designed for students to meet with the same group and teacher throughout all four years of high school with a focus on preparing for college. For two months, AUA worked with the Capstone teachers and visited the seniors every two weeks to participate in meetings. We shared our own college experiences, answered any questions students had such as living in a dorm or choosing a major, and conducted exercises on identifying goals and the support systems needed to meet them. We recorded our experiences and reflections in a shared Google Doc.
For the last visit, we invited ASU Prep alumni, many of whom participated in mentoring throughout the year, to share their first year of college experience with the seniors.
AUA members interviewed 13 of the senior Capstone students at the conclusion of the visits, and students responded positively. One student who planned to attend ASU said hearing the mentors’ college experiences made him more comfortable with starting college and living in a dorm.
Another student explained how having the AUA mentors visit opened her eyes to school beyond the undergraduate degree, saying how the visits made her want to “pursue my education, go to graduate school, and get as much knowledge as I possibly can.”
Our plan for the 2016–2017 year is to continue mentoring the students who previously participated and actively recruit the now-sophomores and current freshmen to participate in mentoring. We also plan to focus part of our research on the literacy practices the alumni find most useful for success in college.
We hope our efforts to form meaningful, long-lasting relationships will result in even more mentor/mentee pairings and a successful college experience for many students, for years to come.
Maria Hernandez Goff, an ILA member since 2013, is a PhD student in Learning, Literacies, and Technology at Arizona State University. She is the president of the Beta Beta chapter of AUA.
Last year, Anne Bond received what may have been the most daunting assignment of her college career. Bond and her classmates in Loyola University Chicago’s reading teacher program were each tasked with crafting a curriculum for books selected by Illinois Reads, an initiative of the Illinois Reading Council that promotes literacy by highlighting the work of local authors. But this was more than just a classroom exercise—the students were told their work would be made available to teachers statewide for use in their classrooms.
Bond, a student in Loyola’s School of Education, admits to being a bit nervous about creating something that would have such a broad reach. But she also recognized it as an excellent opportunity to hone her skills as a teacher. She selected The Detective’s Assistant by Chicago author Kate Hannigan, which is aimed at the same elementary grade levels that Bond hopes to one day teach, and she began developing a curriculum to include thematic discussions, digital whiteboard activities, and a vocabulary review. Her goal was to create engaging activities for students and an easily accessible guide for teachers. Bond and her classmates helped each other make their lesson plans as classroom-ready as possible. “We all thought about what we would want to pick up if we were teaching,” she says.
The assignment stemmed from a collaboration between Loyola and Illinois Reads, selecting annually a group of books aimed at age levels from pre-K through adult. Loyola professor Jane Hunt developed the project as a way for students to gain experience in designing curriculum materials while supporting literacy education in Illinois. Over two years, 17 Loyola students have completed teacher guides that are currently available for download on the Illinois Reads website.
“It has been a really great way for our undergraduates to become involved in a statewide project,” says Hunt. “There are so many teachers who are hired who never write any kind of curriculum that is even shared at a school or district level. And our teacher candidates are working on materials that teachers anywhere can have access to.”
For Bond, the project had another unexpected benefit. She decided to send a message to Hannigan through the author’s website and was pleasantly surprised to receive a prompt reply. The two struck up a conversation, and Hannigan provided insight that allowed Bond to expand her work on the book’s themes. She also added information to her guide on how teachers can connect with Hannigan for school visits or Skype chats with their classes. When Bond shared her work with the author, Hannigan was so impressed that she asked permission to post a copy of the guide on her website, too.
“I think the partnership between all of these people who really care about reading and who care about kids getting a quality reading education is so beneficial,” Bond says. “It has created so many great guides for teachers to use and great relationships with authors and teachers all around the state. So many children have benefitted.”
Tammy Potts, chairperson of Illinois Reads, agrees that the collaboration has been a big success. When she’s shown the guides created by Loyola students to teachers, Potts sums up their response in one word: “Wow!” She says that’s a testament to the talent and creativity of the students, which in turn has furthered the mission of Illinois Reads.
“It’s a win–win,” Potts says. “Students get to learn and practice in the Loyola environment, and the teachers in Illinois get to reap the benefits.”
This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Loyola magazine, the official publication of Loyola University Chicago, and is reprinted with permission.
Many teachers in Nigeria were never taught how to encourage their students to read and write critically and creatively. It’s not often a prioritized objective in their country’s education system—but that’s changing.
“Some teachers simply assume that reading is all about English language, and others think the task of teaching reading and literacy is the business of the English language teacher alone,” explains Gabriel B. Egbe, president of the Reading Association of Nigeria (RAN).
Complicating matters, there are no Nigerian higher education institutions with degree programs in either reading or literacy, and the country struggles with limited access to books. Egbe notes that many teachers are also hesitant to collaborate with each other or pursue opportunities to develop their own literacy or teaching skills.
Enter RAN, which aims to shift priorities and improve literacy instruction in schools through teacher training and student reading programs. One of ILA’s more than 75 affiliates, RAN continues to face obstacles, ranging from a lack of resources to the inability of students to read and write even in their native language, but it is making significant strides.
RAN recently teamed up with the state government to institute the Literacy Enhancement and Achievement Project (LEAP) as a pilot program in Anambra State, Nigeria. Designed to empower teachers to develop their skills in the core subjects of English, mathematics, and basic science and technology at the junior secondary school level, LEAP is a school-based collaborative learning model created to promote literacy enhancement and achievement.
“We wanted to develop and implement a standard blueprint for enhancing the literacy empowerment of every child in the schools and colleges in the state,” explains Willie M. Obiano, executive governor of Anambra State.
LEAP, which began last September and wrapped up in April, was the first major collaboration between RAN and the state government.
“The LEAP proposal had two goals: to ensure that teachers themselves could learn to appreciate and enjoy reading and writing, as well as to empower them to teach their students how to effectively and efficiently receive, give, and use information through written texts,” adds professor Chukwuemeka Eze Onukaogu, chair of the board of trustees for RAN, who served on the LEAP implementation team along with Egbe, Irene Mbanefo, Irene Ossisioma, Chinwe Muodumogu, Gabriel Oyinloye, Grace Abiodun-Ekus, and Iroegbu Ahuekwe.
Encouraging meaningful interpretation
Three local government areas were selected for the pilot: Awka South, Anambra East, and Orumba South, and a toolkit with literacy materials was developed to assist the master trainers and trainees. In total, there were 478 teachers in 41 schools with a student population of 15,600 involved. The schools were divided into clusters on the basis of proximity.
One teacher for each of the three core school subjects was selected from the 41 schools and was trained as a master teacher for 18 days to flow his or her training to other teachers in each school. The cluster meetings were facilitated by master teachers and lasted for 16 weeks.
According to Alis Headlam, lead presenter for LEAP’s JSS Literacy Training Workshop, the teachers were first engaged in theoretical and scientific knowledge about learning and literacy, followed by practical strategies and techniques that encourage interaction, demonstration, and discussion.
“Literacy instruction in Anambra State tended to focus on blackboard lessons and government texts that students were required to purchase. Those lessons were often more about grammar and skills than meaningful stories and text,” Headlam explains. “For the purposes of this training, teachers were encouraged to use authentic, culturally relevant texts that would encourage meaningful interpretation and creative thinking.”
Broken into small groups, teachers participated in hands-on lesson demonstrations, role-playing, and more. Headlam notes that presenters aimed to find ways to incorporate small-group instruction, story writing, and activity-based learning—all beneficial elements when dealing with often large class sizes.
“One of the initiative’s greatest successes is that teachers started to find creative ways to make their lessons more interesting,” Obiano adds.
Pre-tests were administered to the students and teachers prior to the program, and post-tests were given at the end of the period. Only 4.3% of teachers indicated that they had effective strategies for teaching literacy skills and strategies at the pre-test, whereas the post-test results showed an upsurge of more than 62%.
Similarly, only 3.5% of teachers were familiar with journals at the pretest, compared with 46.4% at the post-test.
“The post-tests show that over 80% of the students now read at the independent level…but in the pre-tests, the reverse was the case, where over 80% of the students read at the frustration level,” Onukaogu adds.
The success is also evident in the testimonials from teachers who say the program changed their practice and changed their students.
“LEAP has successfully made teaching and learning fun,” said Frank, a teacher in Anambra State. Chidi, another teacher, said his students now believe in themselves and have a much more positive attitude toward school.
Perhaps one of the most significant outcomes of LEAP is a new educational policy known as Drop Everything and Read. For the first time, the state government has made it mandatory for all schools to set aside one hour each week for uninterrupted sustained silent reading.
Schools are also promoting journal writing and encouraging teachers to incorporate opportunities to read and write in their lesson plans. “These are truly innovative policies in the Nigerian school system,” Egbe says.
However, the country still faces obstacles when it comes to satisfying students’ newfound desire to read—including limited access to reading materials. “The challenge is having stimulated students who want to read and write when we are unable to provide them with diverse reading materials that would be appropriate for their reading levels as well as sustaining their interest to read,” Onukaogu says.
To that end, many students are working with their teachers to write their own books, while RAN and the state government are working to freight books from outside the country.
RAN is also planning its first-ever Literacy Festival to be held in the Anambra State capital in July to showcase the impact LEAP has made in the lives of students and teachers. Egbe is hopeful that the project may be extended to all other schools in the state.
“Students are excited that class texts are no longer frightening to them. We are also seeing teachers collaborate among themselves in order to enhance the literacy performance of their students,” Onukaogu concludes. “We hope to replicate the entire program at the primary or basic education level so that when children begin their formal education at that early stage, they will receive literacy empowerment for lifelong learning.”
Jennifer L. Nelson is a freelance magazine writer specializing in education and parenting.