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Literacy Now

The Engaging Classroom
Making a Case for Reading Joy
ILA 2019 Replay
Making a Case for Reading Joy
ILA 2019 Replay
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    Exploring the Nexus of Identity and Academic Writing

    By Debalina Maitra
     | Feb 27, 2019

    The day I started to work toward my PhD in literacy education, I began to believe profoundly that reading and writing are socially constructed, as many researchers (such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Michael Halliday, and Lev Vygotsky) claimed. However, when I really started to struggle with the expectations of academic writing, that was the moment I realized just how underestimated and unexplored the nexus of cultural identity and academic writing is in the field of literacy instruction.

    Then, I met many other bright international and culturally diverse scholars going through the same ordeal. My own frustrating experience with academic writing finally helped me to produce my dissertation. Focusing on undergraduate students, my study used rigorous qualitative data analyses to explore how teacher educators can better teach academic language to culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

    For my study, I interviewed five participants three times throughout the semester about their academic writing experiences and perception. The participants were also asked to share two writing samples—one they enjoyed writing and one that they did not.

    My study found that students were more likely to enjoy writing when they were able to write about their own lives. Students also appreciated when they were able to negotiate with professors about writing expectations or new ways of approaching an assignment. These findings suggest that voice and autonomy are important factors in creating more positive writing experiences.

    My study also revealed that perception and experience of academic writing were reciprocal to the students, meaning they did not differentiate between those two components. All five participants mentioned perception and experience components back and forth to refer to their academic writing approach, process, strengths, and weaknesses. My research also revealed that people with multicultural and multilingual identities often go through identity conflicts and eventually they embrace their both identities and uniquely create an amalgamation of both spaces. We, as educators, need to learn to work in that third space to maximize student potential by recognizing students’ background, ethnicity, and linguistic resources and scaffold them in that zone through those tools.

    Some may argue that certain disciplines offer more opportunities for scaffolding through culture and language. However, my study found that many students’ academic paths are rooted in their cultural identity. For example, one participant chose to study chemistry because he wanted to use his knowledge of food economics to build healthier eating habits in his Hispanic community. He wanted to create an awareness in his community of the negative health impacts associated with a high-carbohydrate diet. Knowing this, a teacher educator could more easily assign him a writing prompt that explores his specific interests in chemistry.

    Another participant mentioned that she decided to study biology because she learned to respect nature from her Venezuelan culture. She also mentioned that her writing style was more centered on personal anecdotes than on hard facts. For example, she wrote a narrative on the environment, explaining what would happen to the future generation if the environment is not protected. Teacher educators should always give students choices about their approach in academic writing or talk to students of color to understand how they are trying to proceed with their class writing.

    Certainly, high-impact teaching can cause high exhaustion, and getting to know all students and their background can be a challenge. On the basis of my research findings, I offer a few suggestions:

    • Get to know each other. Teacher educators can set up an introduction where students might introduce themselves in multimodal mode. Students can be asked about their culture, language, and countries whenever applicable. This will help students feel welcomed and connected.
    • Be flexible. Whenever possible, teacher educators can give students opportunities to write about topics that are relevant to them. That means teacher educators can adopt an open-ended writing prompt, as long as students meet the end goal of that task.
    • Establish expectations. I feel it’s crucial for teacher educators to clearly state the task, audience, process, format, and assessment criteria for a writing assignment and explain how it fits into the larger curriculum, so that students understand the expectations.
    • Be available. My research also revealed that the availability and approachability of teacher educators influenced students’ perceptions of academic writing. When teacher educators were willing to talk to students outside of class or help them shape their writing, students took advantage of the help. However, when teacher educators directed them to the writing center or other outside resources, students felt discouraged. Therefore, I recommend that teacher educators clearly communicate their availability and willingness to offer support.

    Most important, we need to accept that literacy is not just specific to content areas, but an extension of who we are. Let’s consider who we are outside of the academia, because reading and writing is not just cognitive acts to make 21st-century teaching more relevant to students’ lives.

    Debalina Maitra has a PhD in Literacy Education from University of Wyoming and a minor in Qualitative Research Methods. Her dissertation research focused on academic writing and cultural identity of culturally and linguistically diverse undergraduate students. She is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher for CAFECS (Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science), a NSF-funded Research Practitioner Partnership grant in Chicago. Her research is focused on equity in computer science for culturally diverse students at Chicago Public Schools. She is particularly focusing on Hispanic students and trying to build an equity framework.

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    Learning and Building a Partnership Through Activities and Home Visits

    By Anasthasie Liberiste-Osirus
     | Feb 19, 2019

    honoring-diversityIn recent years, there has been a shift in diversity within our classrooms in the United States. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that the number of English learners (ELs) in public schools has increase between 3–10% since the fall of 2000, with the greatest influx in states such as California, Texas, Kansas, and Nevada.

    This shift in population required a shift in my personal communication strategy with parents and caregivers.

    Teaching high school reading and English skills to EL students came with its set of challenges. By the third month of the school year, I understood that I needed to think outside the box if I wanted family engagement and student success. With the growth of 6% in Georgia’s EL student population from 2000 to 2015—and most home languages consisting of Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Arabic—it was clear that certain efforts of communication with parents and caregivers were just not successful. Namely, sending long, complex documents home in English; emailing parents; making phone calls without an interpreter; and expecting parents and caregivers to show up to teacher conferences without language support.

    The ineffectiveness of my past efforts to connect provided me with a unique opportunity to develop a plan of action that was feasible and sustainable.

    The snapshot

    Taking time to learn about my EL population was essential. Becoming familiar with a student’s culture, specific traditions, language, and religious holidays not only helped me get a better understanding of students overall, but it gave context to responses and some acquisition confusion.

    Learning about your students’ culture also provides you, the teacher, with a foundation to build practical lessons that build on their background knowledge as well as improve communication between you and the student. Though most of my students spent over six months at refugee camps and had zero documentation of academic gaps or progress, they all came into my classroom with real-world experiences that enriched our daily activities.

    I took it upon myself to validate the richness of their home language and culture with lessons that supported both our district’s language and literacy curriculum and their home language—for example, finding literature from home cultures that mirrored literature classics or providing opportunity for students to develop a class dictionary with essential words for each language spoken.

    I started other activities to bolster home–school connections such as a yearly cultural showcase featuring native dances, music, and poetry where families and students were active in putting it together. Connecting with local organizations that supported many of my refugee and displaced students to assist with translations, provide tutoring, or other community resources was also vital. These interventions were done to understand and support students in the classroom.

    But was this enough to connect with parents and caregivers and their students?

    Developing deeper connections

    Though there was an obvious language and cultural gap, the navigation of learning about my students’ background beyond their enrollment record gave me a better global sense of my students and their emotional load when they enter my classroom each morning. As I learned more about my students, I realized that relationship building could be emphasized through face to face interactions.

    In Georgia, about 30% of EL students live in urban regions. One way that I made further efforts to build trust was to visit students’ homes, soliciting a native speaker to assist during visits when possible, and attending cultural events within their community.

    It became my priority not just to visit the students who were clearly unsupported and falling through the cracks but also the students who were succeeding. Weekday evening and weekend morning visits became routine. It took a bit of planning to navigate routes, coordinate with a translating volunteer, and speak to students to work out a schedule. I also worked with other teachers who shared the same students and we collaborated to make our presence known among the EL population. An average student received at least one visit within the school year, but all families received some type of written or verbal communication several times throughout the year.

    The takeaway

    A few things I learned through taking the time to learn about my students and making an effort to build relationships through home visits were that

    • Many parents and caregivers are unable to interpret the academic plans and additional programs set up to bolster their child’s educational experience. Though interested in learning, many felt overwhelmed.
    • Due to external variables (e.g., parents and caregivers working multiple jobs, unable to find child care for meeting, or anxiety surrounding lack of communication), many parents are unable to attend parent teacher conferences.
    • Poverty was a common factor that affected a parent or caregiver’s lack of availability.
    • Students are weighted down by the pressure of navigating government assistance forms, job applications, and communicating for their families.

    With classrooms averaging four different languages and cultures, connecting with families helped build a partnership that became reflective in my approach to teaching and communication between home and school.

    Understanding each student’s culture and home life allows us to vary our teaching and build on their background knowledge. Taking the time to learn about each student affirms to the student that we respect and value the wealth of experiences and knowledge they bring to our classroom.

    Anasthasie N. Liberiste-Osirus is the associate director of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education in Haiti program.

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    Choice: A Key Motivator for Teen Readers

    By Kristen Bruck
     | Feb 13, 2019

    As a child, I loved to read, but I never enjoyed English class. I read books that were assigned, but trying to remember details to earn points on a quiz just didn’t seem relevant to me. Now, as a parent, I dread the summer reading assignments that my kids bring home. Like most students, they don’t want to read a book that doesn’t interest them or complete an assignment so that their school can check a box to say they “read” over the summer. Even worse are the computer programs that limit students to specific books, answering questions to earn points. These may be easy ways for schools to track “reading,” but these assignments are not reading; they are chores!

    Throughout my life—as a reader, a parent, and an educator—I have found that restricting choice almost always backfires, making kids less likely to want to read.  Right no. 3 of the International Literacy Association’s Children’s Rights to Read—a new initiative aimed at ensuring every child has access to the education, opportunities, and resources needed to read—states that  “Children have the right to choose what they read.” From my experience, however, this right is rarely realized. 

    As an English teacher, I know that reading is more than just the answers on a test; it’s a way for all of us to find reflections of ourselves and connect with others. That is why I have changed my classroom in the past year. I still teach skills, standards, and texts that are part of the curriculum, but now I also incorporate time for students to use these skills to make meaningful connections in books of their choice.

    To start, I allowed my students to choose their summer reading—with no limitations. I provided suggestions, but told them they could read anything that interested them. At first, students were confused—they couldn’t believe they could choose what to read. I gave them time to look through books that I had checked out from the public library, I showed video recommendations from their teachers, and they began to get excited about the idea of reading for pleasure. We created a website for students to share book recommendations, and when we came back to school in August, students continued to share their favorites through book talks. Most important, I gave students time in class to read the books they had chosen.

    Allowing and encouraging choice has been no easy feat in a school that does not have a library. How could students choose books without any to choose from? So, I went online and researched popular books for teens (particularly ones that featured diverse protagonists), talked to my students about books they loved, and even used social media to find titles of books. Then, I bought books, asked friends and local community partners to donate used books, and started an Amazon Wishlist and several successful crowdfunding projects. My classroom library, which started out with just 20 books, has grown to several hundred books—and it keeps growing. Just this past week, a student said to me, “Mrs. Bruck, what are you doing? I actually like to read now!” She told me that she never liked to read anything before this year, but now she finds herself unable to put books down and is even engaged in reading assignments from other classes.

    Too often, we hear about teenagers who “just won’t read,” but if we do it right—allowing choice, creating time and space to read, and providing high-interest books—then we can foster a lifelong love of reading, even in students who never imagined they would be readers.

    Kristen Bruck is a high school English teacher and reading specialist. This is her 18th year teaching. She previously taught middle and high school social studies as well as English courses at a local community college. She is the mom of two kids, a son in eighth grade and a daughter in fifth grade.

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    Meaning Making and Unconventional Interpretations—A Gift for Literacy Teachers

    By Ziva R. Hassenfeld
     | Feb 07, 2019

    meaning-making“I need your help putting some things in order. What I have here, I have a lot of pictures and the pictures aren’t in order. I don’t know which come first in the story. What is this?” Sarah, the teacher, asks the small group of students, ages 4 and 5.

    Edward answers, “Brushing your teeth.”

    “So, what happens first when people brush their teeth?”

    The small group works through the pictures and agree on the order: First you pick up your toothbrush (picture no. 1), next you put toothpaste on it (picture no. 2), next you brush (picture no. 3), and then, whatever the last picture is—students are unclear whether it’s flossing or checking the teeth—they decide it comes last (picture no. 4). They tell the story to Sarah, who nods and moves on to the next set of pictures in the sequencing task. She puts out four pictures of a log falling down a waterfall. The students confidently put them in an order that does not reflect a log falling down a waterfall. Sarah asks them to explain the story. Without skipping a beat, Edward explains, “Well, the log comes down the water and then goes back up.”

    His classmate, Aliza, jumps in, “One log comes down and then another log comes down.”

    “What if,” Sarah, dismayed, probes, “there was one log. Could it be a different order?”

    Dismissively, Edward replies, “OK, the log goes down the waterfall around the stream, up, and down again.”

    The students are committed to their story. They work hard to justify their sequence, in the process demonstrating the very cognitive aspect this sequencing task looked to measure: the ability to sequence the pictures and justify the sequence through narrative. What they’re not willing to do is revise their sequence to fit the narrative convention at play. Unlike brushing teeth, at ages 4 and 5, living in suburban Boston, these students don’t have enough experience with logs and streams to understand the story the cards are meant to convey. They are unfamiliar with the narrative conventions operating here. But this does not stop them. Rather, it allows them to construct creative interpretations. They were asked to put the picture cards in order and develop a story that reflected the order. And they did. 

    “OK,” Sarah hedges, in response to Edward’s revised story.

    “Let’s do another one,” Aliza requests. Their story, like it or not, is complete.

    The group moves on to three more sequencing tasks, one about scoring a goal in soccer, one about a melting snowman, and one about a friend knocking down another friend’s blocks. The group of students quickly sequence each set of cards in a standard order and tell a story that we, adults, would deem correct. But in this short opening task, the students have exposed a deep pedagogical insight: unconventional answers, that is, answers that ignore some convention for how textual meaning is produced, can often show deep disciplinary understanding.

    Researchers in literacy education have repeatedly demonstrated the possibilities presented in unconventional interpretations. Maren Aukerman, for example, carefully documented how a fifth-grade student’s unconventional pronunciation of beast as best led to a rich, textually invested discussion between students. She also demonstrated how a student’s unconventional interpretation of a science textbook’s excerpt on spiders, nonetheless, displayed productive and insightful textual work. The student did not understand that the statementHairy Mygalomorphs are known by scientists as primitive spiders. They have existed for millions of years, yet have changed very little” referred to the species at large—not a single spider. This led to deep scientific exploration and close reading among the students in the class.

    These examples highlight what so many teachers of texts already know: When students are afforded the opportunity to generate hypotheses about the text and make decisions for themselves about how different aspects of the text fit with their hypotheses, their literacy skills improve.

    I was so deeply moved by observing the students in the interaction described earlier, not because the students were more capable of correctly sequencing those stories that were relevant to their lives. Rather, I was moved by the other side of that same coin, a side that has been mostly ignored by the research: how deeply motivated the students were to construct a story about the set of cards that was not relevant to their lives. Even when the students were unfamiliar with the narrative conventions at play in the waterfall and log set of cards, they were, nonetheless, deeply engaged and motivated to make meaning. Unlike adults, and many veteran school students, who learn to stop and silence themselves when confronted with an unfamiliar narrative convention, these young students marched forward, uninhibited, in their desire to make meaning.

    As we help students develop the necessary skills for literacy, fluency, background knowledge, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies, we must always still attend to their most precious asset: an active desire to make sense of their worlds, even when this expresses itself in unconventional interpretations.

    Ziva R. Hassenfeld, an ILA member since 2016, earned her doctorate in Curriculum and Teacher Education from Stanford University in 2016. She is currently a middle school teacher in the Boston area and a post-doctoral fellow at Brandeis University and at Tufts University.

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    Teaching Shakespeare in the Digital Age

    By Susan Gustafson
     | Feb 06, 2019

    shakespeare-digital-age“To be, or not to be—that is the question:
    Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
    And, by opposing, end them. To die—to sleep,”

    Five lines are all I can recall from the 33 that comprise Hamlet’s Act III Scene I soliloquy that I memorized and performed in my high school English class. What was Hamlet questioning? Mortality? Why? How did this soliloquy fit into the context of the play? Well, I don’t recall. In fact, I’m not sure I ever knew.

    As I was about to teach Macbeth for the first time, I reflected on my soliloquy performance. Besides the sand through the hourglass, another reason for my lack of recall was my lack of comprehension at the time. I didn’t learn that there were signals in the text to help me understand what Hamlet was saying and how to say it. There was also the issue of having to perform from memory. I was only concerned about saying the correct words in the correct order. In the end, the recitation was more of a droning than a performance.

    Twenty years later, I was able to use technology to support my students’ demonstration of their comprehension of soliloquies and Macbeth’s character. Instead of standing in front of the class to recite one of Macbeth’s soliloquies, students produced an audiovisual performance of the soliloquy of their choice.

    Close reading of text

    After reading a soliloquy once for general comprehension, we analyzed clues in the text to dig deeper into its meaning. We also learned how to perform the clues to enhance the audience’s understanding of the character. During subsequent rereading of the soliloquy, we searched for the clues. Then, we annotated what the clues revealed about the meaning of the soliloquy and how to perform the clues for the audience. We used the gradual release of responsibility framework with multiple texts until students were ready to analyze a soliloquy in Macbeth independently for their audiovisual performance.

    During our close reading, we looked for the following and completed the tasks under each:

    Alliteration and assonance

    • Annotate for nearby repeating sounds and what they reveal about the character’s state of mind.
    • Mark to emphasize the repeated sounds to communicate the character’s emotions.

    Change of direction

    • Annotate words such as “and,” “but,” “if,” and “yet” when they show a change in a character’s thoughts. Question what this change in direction conveys about the character.
    • Mark to emphasize these words for the audience to hear the change in direction.

    Opposing words

    • Annotate the purpose of the opposing words in nearby lines. Question what the character might be facing.
    • Mark to stress the opposing words to highlight the conflict for the audience.


    • Annotate locations of all ending punctuation.
    • Mark to pause after ending punctuation at the end of a line to indicate the character is thinking. Mark to continue speaking without a pause for ending punctuation in the middle of a line.

    Repeated words

    • Annotate for repeated words in nearby lines and their purpose in the meaning of the soliloquy.
    • Mark to emphasize repeated words to help the audience notice them.

    Performance practice

    After closely reading the text multiple times and annotating it for meaning and the performance, students used their marked-up copy of the soliloquy to practice the audio performance. In class, students used whisper phones to play around with the language. 

    During the practice, I provided feedback. For instance, one student was reading the entire soliloquy in exaggerated iambic pentameter. In earlier lessons, we analyzed which lines used iambic pentameter and Shakespeare’s purpose for using the rhythm of the heartbeat in those moments. This provided an opportunity for reteaching.


    Students recorded the audio of the soliloquy in a web-based video platform. Audio recording has some benefits over live recitation. When students made mistakes recording, they were able to delete and rerecord.  They were also able to chunk the recording of the soliloquy. There was no pressure to be 100% accurate on the first try. These benefits may reduce anxiety among students who fear performing for the class.

    Another benefit was that students were able to listen, evaluate, and revise their performances prior to publication. As students listened to their recordings, they noticed places that needed more emphasis or a pause. Then they were able to rerecord to enhance their performance. 

    Adding audio and visual elements

    In the same web-based video platform used for the audio recording, students added images, background music, and sound effects to enhance the production. For example, in Macbeth’s Act II Scene I soliloquy, some students used the sound effects of Macbeth’s footsteps when he asks the ground not to hear the direction of his whereabouts and the sound of a bell for King Duncan’s death knell. 


    Students had the option to publish their audiovisual performance on our learning management system for their classmates to view and provide feedback for each other.


    Students were asked to reflect on how their audiovisual production demonstrated their comprehension of the soliloquy. They also reflected on how the close reading of the text helped to deepen their understanding of the soliloquy.

    Upon my reflection of the audiovisual performance process and the products, I learned that teaching students how to use Shakespeare’s text clues to derive meaning reduced some of the mystery and anxiety of interacting with Shakespearian language. Students felt more confident and able to crack the code. 

    Twenty years ago, my high school English teacher did not have the capability for all students to create an audiovisual performance. Today, we can use technology to redesign curriculum and ask student to use it to enhance their learning. To redesign, or not to redesign, should not be the question.

    Susan Gustafson is a middle school reading and language arts teacher in the Chicago area. She is also certified as a reading specialist and is pursuing a master's degree in educational leadership. You can follow her on Twitter at @MiddleMsGus.

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