What Teachers Say About Literacy

There is no denying the impact that literacy has on everyday life. Literacy skills allow us to seek out information, explore subjects in-depth, and gain a deeper understanding of the world around us (The University of Kansas, 2021). Given the importance of literacy, a teacher’s role not only plays a fundamental part in a child's education but also their well-being. To understand what drives a teacher’s pedagogical approaches, two recent surveys from EdWeek and The International Literacy Association (ILA) have attempted to capture how teacher practices, experiences, and knowledge shape their literacy instruction.

In fall of 2019, the EdWeek Research Center set out to gain a clearer sense of teacher practices and knowledge by sending out two surveys about topics related to early literacy instruction. The first survey was completed by 674 K-2 and elementary special education teachers who self-reported having taught children how to read. The second survey was completed by 533 higher education instructors from four-year colleges or universities who indicated they had taught early literacy instruction to teachers or prospective teachers. Both surveys included questions about approaches to teaching early literacy instruction.

The ILA survey, developed by a 17-member focus group of literacy experts, was completed by 1,443 teachers, higher education professionals, literacy consultants, and school administrators from 65 countries and territories. In winter of 2020, based on the survey results, the ILA released the What’s Hot in Literacy Report looking at the experiences of reading instructors and identifying critical topics to advancing literacy.

In this post, I discuss several takeaways from these surveys and explore how literacy instruction begins with teacher preparation programs, but has to be sustained with organizational factors. Taken together, these survey results suggest that teacher knowledge, teacher practices, and organizational or school factors all play a part in effective literacy instruction.

Teachers’ Knowledge

The ILA survey asserts that “according to respondents, the greatest barrier to equity in literacy instruction is the variability of teacher knowledge and teaching effectiveness” (2020, p. 7). Yet, when asked to identify the five essential components of literacy instruction—as identified by the National Reading Panel (Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, Comprehension)—only 55 percent of K-2 teachers and 78 percent of postsecondary teachers could identify all five (EdWeek Survey). 

While knowledge on literacy instruction begins with teacher preparation programs, when K-2 teachers were asked about where they obtained most of their literacy knowledge, only 5 percent of respondents cited pre-service training. Additionally, when K-2 teachers were asked how prepared they felt to teach reading when they left their pre-service programs, only 11 percent said completely prepared, and about a third said somewhat or completely unprepared (EdWeek Survey). Two-thirds of teachers believe that teacher preparation programs need to be strengthened in terms of literacy instruction (ILA Survey).

Teachers’ Practices

A majority of educators reported using a balanced literacy approach in their classrooms, but also identified this as an approach where they needed more professional development. Specifically, 68 percent of K-2 teachers reported using balanced literacy (EdWeek Survey). Although there is not one official definition of balanced literacy, respondents identified these common components: shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading (52 percent); phonics (52 percent); vocabulary, word study (39 percent); comprehension (30 percent); shared, guided, or independent writing (22 percent); and phonemic awareness (21 percent).

Elementary teachers rely on leveled reader books more than any other source, with 61 percent of the K-2 EdWeek survey respondents using them. Teachers believed these books “support literacy instruction that encourages students to use pictures as clues to guess at unfamiliar words” (2019, p.10). 

Organizational Factors

The ILA’s Reading Research Quarterly defines organizational factors as the system and school conditions that affect literacy instruction and reform (Gabriel & Woulfin, 2020). The three major pillars of infrastructure for literacy are: curriculum, professional development, and leadership. (Gabriel & Woulfin, 2020).

Often, K-2 teachers have little control over the literacy curriculum they use in their classrooms. The EdWeek survey found that nearly two-thirds of K-2 teachers said their districts selected the primary programs and materials they used to teach literacy. Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention was the top program that districts used, with 43 percent of participants stating they used it at their schools on a daily basis for letter and word practice.

According to the ILA survey, administrators play an important role in literacy instruction; 83 percent of teachers stated that school leaders should provide direction, leadership, and support regarding professional learning opportunities related to literacy. In addition, 75 percent of teachers stated that school leaders should be responsible for staying up to date on the latest literacy research.

Current educators identify professional development as their number one source of knowledge with 33 percent of teachers claiming they learned the most about literacy instruction from professional development (EdWeek Survey). Similarly, teachers believed school districts should be providing more professional development on literacy topics, ranging from ways to differentiate instruction to a greater understanding of balanced literacy instruction. Respondents identified professional development among the top five most important topics to improve literacy outcomes and they also believed it needed more focus and attention (ILA Survey).

Another organizational concern noted by both the ILA and EdWeek surveys was time: 61 percent of teachers stated they needed more time to collaborate with colleagues. Additionally, 90 percent of teachers said they should set aside a minimum of 20 minutes a day for independent reading, but only 60 percent were able to block off any time because of other curriculum goals and standards that needed to be met (ILA Survey).

K-2 teachers reported spending an average of 80 minutes a day on literacy instruction and 31 minutes of that time was devoted specifically to phonics (EdWeek Survey). This falls slightly below the National Reading Panel's daily recommendation of 90 minutes of uninterrupted literacy instruction for K- 2 students. Furthermore, the National Reading Panel only recommends 15 minutes of daily phonics instruction in combination with other areas, including: oral language, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (2005, p.8).

Additionally, respondents in the ILA survey identified inadequate access to books in schools and in families’ homes as another organizational concern and a cause of equity barriers in literacy instruction. Educators stated that classroom and school libraries needed to be strengthened to support students. Additionally, 49 percent of educators acknowledged that using digital resources and texts to support literacy instruction was an area where they needed more support from their administrators.

The ILA and EdWeek surveys paint a complex picture of literacy instruction. While one cannot deny the importance of teacher knowledge and preparation programs, they are not the only determinants for poor outcomes in literacy instruction. What these surveys point to, and what other scholars have argued, is that organizational factors play an even more important role in literacy instruction. A role that can no longer be downplayed or ignored in coverage of literacy instruction.

- Kayla Reist

Issues Areas

Very well put this article hit so many points in the education system. If kids cannot read and write they will not survive in this world today.