It Might Look Different, But It’s Still Comprehensive Literacy!

Our Board, like other ones around the province, embraces the comprehensive literacy model for Language instruction. The other day, I caught part of a Twitter conversation with Valerie Bennett and Lori St. Amand — two wonderful teachers in our Board — that really got me thinking. The discussion made me question if comprehensive literacy can only be delivered in one way, and the more that I think about it, the more that I’m convinced that this is not the case.

I believe that we embrace comprehensive literacy in our classroom, but in a very integrated approach. Our classroom has changed a lot since the year began. When I started teaching Grade 5, I worked to the bells. I scheduled each period as a new block of time, and we rotated activities every 40-50 minutes. It was like clockwork. Yes, I had modelled, shared, guided, and independent reading and writing, but I was still getting frustrated. There wasn’t enough time for students to delve deeply into our Science and Social Studies topics. The Arts was getting lost completely. Inquiries were lasting forever, and the students and I were both getting frustrated and bored. So I spoke to my PLN on Twitter and conversed with my vice principal, and we made a change.

We now no longer work to the bells. In fact, my students almost ignore the bells, unless they have to go to French, Music, or Phys-Ed. Our day is now divided into large blocks of time, and 160 minutes is devoted to comprehensive literacy combined with Science, Social Studies, and The Arts. Does it look like the traditional model? Maybe not. Here’s what it includes though:

  • We often start the block with a shared reading text that corresponds to our current Science or Social Studies inquiry.
  • This shared reading is followed up by a modelled, shared, and/or interactive writing activity that focuses on a specific skill. These activities are based on my daily formative assessment and address student needs. Often this activity includes a small group component as well as an independent writing component.
  • Then students work independently, in partner groups, and in small groups (this often changes each day and throughout the Language block) on a reading and writing activity that aligns with our current inquiry. The Arts is often integrated into this activity. Word study becomes a part of this activity as well, but often based on Science and/or Social Studies vocabulary. There are many opportunities to work with words throughout the writing component of this program.
  • During this time, I take guided reading and guided writing groups. These groups are often not levelled groups, but skill-based groups. Usually we’re working on developing a specific reading comprehension skill (in guided reading) or expanding ideas, reconsidering word choice, examining point of view, and/or editing work (in guided writing). I don’t always work with these groups at the guided reading table. Sometimes I take them at different table groups around the room. Sometimes I work with students based on the groups that they’re already in, and sometimes I pull students from various groups. Sometimes I use the materials that they’re using for research, and sometimes I pull other materials that still align with the general topic, but may be more closely linked to the skill that I want to develop.
  • Three days a week, our Learning Resource Teacher also comes in during this time to work with groups of students. These are additional guided reading groups that tend to focus more on developing decoding skills.
  • We then end our Literacy Block with modelled reading. Students develop their listening comprehension skills by recalling and reflecting on what’s read aloud during modelled reading. Sometimes we focus on a specific listening comprehension strategy (e.g., making connections), and sometimes we focus on a choice of strategies (e.g., summarizing, visualizing, or asking questions).
  • Oral language is included as part of this entire literacy block. Students share ideas aloud, expand on the ideas of others, speak and listen for various purposes, and organize their ideas for oral discussions. Podcasts and videos are often used to record these conversations.

For our class, this becomes the hybrid comprehensive literacy/inquiry model that works well to address all student needs and have resulted in huge gains in student achievement throughout the year. What does comprehensive literacy look like in your classroom? How have you combined comprehensive literacy and inquiry and/or how would you suggest to combine it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


28 thoughts on “It Might Look Different, But It’s Still Comprehensive Literacy!

  1. The conversation on twitter came from something I have spent most of this year wondering about! I am wondering if allowing children large chunks of self-directed learning time rather than the traditional micromanaged comprehensive literacy block has created children who are more easily able to self regulate. I know myself I have become a MUCH calmer teacher since giving up the task boards, bells and “time slots” that made my comprehensive literacy block what it had been. I would love to know if there is research that says children are calmer without having to jump through a different hoop every 20 minutes or so to demonstrate what they know???

    About 4 or 5 years ago I attended the original meeting where the Ministry released the “ELPK” plan! I remembered being wowed by the plan (that we know now has not come to fruition in the original state) and raced back into the classroom I shared with my teaching partner to start making the changes that were “coming down the pipes”. First to go was the almighty “Task Board” and although it was a huge struggle for my teaching partner and I, we eventually came to the realization that YES kids could make their own choices and WOW they could engage without being TOLD where to go! The next September we made our biggest jump…………giving up the organized “tasky” math and literacy centres we had always run for “open-ended tub time”. We still had a “math time” and a “literacy time” but now the kids used the materials how they wanted and taught each other. No more copying and laminating and cutting little games and such. Oh the hours we had spent doing that……….ha ha ha! We were not happy at first………….we kept thinking “this is a joke we are not teaching” but lo and behold the kids used the materials in new ways and we learned to do “on the spot” mini lessons and teachable moments. Was it easy, no! We struggled through the year without “planned” centres, with no task boards second guessing ourselves all the way! The following September we knew we had one full year to go before ELPK came to our school and we didn’t want to jump into a whole new program so we made the jump to put math and literacy tubs behind us. We kept our mini lessons at first but beyond that the children played, played and played some more. IT DROVE ME CRAZY but……….the kids were learning! I started to question whether or not this job was for me. After 15 years in Kindergarten I was not sure anymore! Finally the year of ELPK arrived and my teaching partner and I had come along way with the philosophy in many ways but now it was time to introduce documentation and an ECE and inquiry………..we were ready…….or so we thought! Little did we know 32 kids and no structure would result in noise and chaos like none other! Many years before we had team taught 50 kids no problem………but back in those days we controlled the groups, we controlled the centres and they never did anything for very long so the noise level never got out of control. The reality of ELPK sunk in LOUDLY!

    I have fond memories of Kinder but after 16 years I was lucky to get the opportunity to move to Grade one. I was armed with many years of comprehensive literacy experience, had met with you for lunch, had read the Daily 5, was in love with 100 Minutes and was lucky to have Lisa the author design my literacy block for me via many emails back and forth. I was ready to take on the literacy block by storm………until I met with two of my teaching partners(both past Kinder colleagues from a time when comprehensive literacy was at its highest point!) As we discussed what our kids had been doing in ELPK and what they had been doing in Grade 1, something came across loud and clear. How on earth do we take children who have been free to learn at their own pace with very little direction beyond teachable moments and mini lessons and force them into a “learning management system”. My kinder teaching partner and I worked hard and had pretty much “bought in” to the new philosophy (almost) that children can take charge of their own learning and that they needed to know we valued their play, their ideas and their thoughts and now my new Grade 1 experienced teaching partners pointed out to me that I was essentially going back to something we had put behind us 3 years previously with children who were essentially only 2 months older. An afternoon of humming and hawing and reading and rereading and even a walk through a cemetery with a crying baby brought us to the realization that the children don’t need us to tell them what to do! They have already been learning on their own, they already loved to read and they already loved to write. There was no need to “teach” them to read by themselves as they already intrinsically wanted to. There was no need to “teach” them to read to a friend……..they always had the freedom to do so. They didn’t need a “ding” of a bell to move them from writing to reading………..they didn’t even know reading and writing were 2 separate things! In Kindergarten the children read and wrote and played and did art and math and other things with very little direction from us. Sure we had to “plant the seed” or “provoke” ideas at times but for the most part most of the children were engaged and as for the few that were not……… Grade One teaching partners told me those same children struggle in a more structured setting anyway and have to be differentiated for. So……….we decided to go for it! We took Lisa Donohue’s AWARD time terminology and her fabulous mini-lesson ideas but instead of structuring the time we turned it into an open ended literacy block where the only expectations were that the children either read, write or do word work. We worked hard at the start of the year to develop anchor charts to support learning during this time and they ended up something like this: During AWARD TIME we will: 1. Read, write or do word work. 2. Sometimes we work by ourselves and sometimes we work with a friend. 3. Use a variety of learning materials. 4. Extend our learning. We began each literacy block with either a read aloud or a writing mini-lesson (often based from a mentor text) and quickly move into AWARD TIME. During award time we are “on the floor” doing everything we did during the structured comprehensive literacy block but now there is less “stress” as the children have a large chunk of time to demonstrate learning and we have a large chunk of time to move from child to child conferring about reading and writing as needed. We are no longer tying ourselves to the traditional guided reading system. This style of teaching was a natural progression for me coming form ELPK but for my Grade 1 partners I had planned with in the summer it was a little “scary” at first. They started to feel like I had felt the previous years like “they were doing nothing”. But soon after, they too got comfortable with teachable moments, shorter mini lessons and inquiry based learning and have had only great things to say! Looking back over this year comparing it to previous years both have said the children are far more engaged and demonstrating far more learning during this authentic literacy block than they ever did under previous teacher directed systems they had used.

    Are we guided reading? Are we shared reading? Are we doing read alouds? Are we responding to literature? YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Like you said Aviva, It just looks different! Guided reading for one child may be sitting with me looking through a non-fiction book about something they are inquiring about. We notice text features, talk about reading strategies and look closely at the text. Sometimes there are a group of children with similar needs and we sit down on the carpet together and read a book. I am truly amazed at how many children I can confer with in a one hour chunk of open-ended learning time now that I don’t think about everything in such a “formal” way as I was introduced to back in Teachers College. A parent in the room makes my day even better as that means more students get 1:1 time! Our teaching has become authentic under this format. No longer are we reading a book to “teach a strategy” because our day plan states we should because it is November 15th and we always do connections on November 15th………..we are enjoying a book and pulling from it good teaching strategies as our children need them because it is a good time and makes sense to do it to our kids! We are essentially teaching the children and uncovering the curriculum along side them rather than teaching the curriculum at them. I really believe the children I have taught over the past 2 maybe 3 years have much better social skills and emotional readiness entering grade one. They may not be reading at DRA 16 or solving math problems like in the past under a more academic program in Kindergarten but……….they met all the baselines for Kindergarten and seem truly happy!

    It truly has been an amazing year and our Grade 2 team is outstanding and is currently working together to determine how their already great teaching can be “tweaked” to meet these “new” children who are self-directed learners full of a love for literacy and everything school has to offer!

    As an aside…………..since March Break I have been engaged in a little self-experiment. I have combined my AWARD TIME with my Guided Exploration Block to try out an almost entirely play-based/inquiry based approach. Although I go back and forth daily as to if I am doing the right thing or not…………I know now that I am! Sitting down with my Instructional Coach and reading the curriculum with her assured me I am working within the overall expectations all of the time! Getting even more panicky and about to ditch my whole program my LRT suggested I do the OWA(Ontario Writing Assessment) with my kids. I decided that was a good idea but was VERY worried as I rarely “assign” a task to my students EVER. The day before I was to do the OWA I explained (to a few groans of why can’t I write about what I want, I am working on writing a chapter book when can I finish it and on and on) that tomorrow would be a special day as they would work on a “By Yourself Writing Job” and everyone had to write about the same thing. Tomorrow came they all wrote and being new to Grade 1 I sent the work to 2 very experienced Grade 2 teachers. These ladies convinced me the children were fine, gave me some mini-lesson ideas on where to go next and told me NOT to stop what I was doing as it was obviously working!

    I sit back now and observe my classroom and am truly amazed at how engaged the children are in their learning. I make my mini-lessons short but they count. The children have made huge gains in extending their learning and very few need me to remind them to be on task! Sure I have come across a few blips here and there of kids “taking the easy way out” but with a little one-one time spent confidence building it has all worked itself out.

    Okay this is possibly the longest thing I have ever written and now I am not even sure I have answered your questions but I will now go back and attempt to edit but this has been my journey this year……………..

    • Lori, I absolutely LOVE what you’ve shared here! It’s great to hear about your experiences in K and 1, and to compare them to my experiences in Grade 5. I completely agree with you that comprehensive literacy can still be comprehensive literacy, even if it looks different than what it may have traditionally looked like in our rooms. Your data from the OWA proves that this strategy is working, and I’ve seen similar results in our room as well. The change can be hard, but it’s so worth making!

      Now the one thing that I’d love for you to do is to copy this post and make it the first one on a professional blog of your own. What great thinking, and words that I think are definitely worthy of sharing with others!


        • Very funny, Lori! I’d love for you to change your mind though. This comment is so worthy of a post of its own. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!


          P.S. I remember sitting with you at that meeting when we reviewed the document. It’s funny to think how long ago that was now.

    • Thank you for sharing this! I am a new teacher (in my second year) and am moving to 2/3 FI from FDK. I’m comfortable with my comprehensive literacy block in English (writing working shop model with daily 5, that usually ends up looking and sounding as you described), but I’ve been at a loss of how to structure my French block for my FSL students. Traditionally, we theme teach vocabulary and there has been a movement towards “authentic” real-life lessons but even they teacher directly based on specific expectations.

      Coming from FDK, my teaching style is very child-centred and I wish to guide my students to become bilingual language learners by supporting their language acquisition skills with vocabulary they need when they need it.

      You’ve just validated my approach to teaching primary FI. Thank you!

      • Thanks for your comment, KT, and for sharing your thoughts! This approach makes so much sense to me. I’m glad that it works for French Immersion. I would love to hear how it goes and the impact that the approach has in your students’ acquisition of language skills.


  2. Aviva and Lori, both of your comments/posts do my heart good. Literacy learning is in good hands with reflective, insightful practitioners such as yourselves who take risks and measure success along the way. Keep learning. Keep sharing. Thanks.

    • Thanks Kristi! I can’t thank you enough for being a listening ear, a wonderful collaborator, and a much-needed (and appreciated) “critical friend” along the way. You helped me make so many of these positive changes, and I know that my students are benefitting as a result. THANK YOU!


  3. Thank you Aviva and Lori for this wonderful post and comment. I know many teachers feel confused and lost in this switch to student centered learning. You’ve provided a fabulous model for others to follow.

    • Thanks for the comment, Heidi! I love how Lori shared her process in making the change, and it’s neat to be able to compare our similarities and differences. Making this change can be a hard one, but you can see the difference in academic achievement (and thinking skills) in the students!

      And thank you for sharing all that you do on student-centred learning and developing thinking skills! I’ve learned so much from you, and I really appreciate it!


  4. One of the hardest things has been to look back at all the crazy task boards, bell ringing, laminating and activity preparing and seeing how hard we worked and how much we ran around like crazy………………to get nowhere near the amazing results we are getting now! It is a different kind of “work” we do now……….with the kids! Not getting ready ” for the kids”. It took me this transition to realize how truly developmental learning is. The kids need experience and vocabulary and quality time, not a micromanaged nightmare!

  5. Thank you Ladies for a very timely post and comment 🙂

    I currently spend two days a week as a literacy coach across grades 3-6, where I plan lessons with the class teachers from a new K -10 Literacy Continuum. We choose a marker and plan a number of lessons to teach and assess students formatively as we go along, placing them on the continuum and moving them along as appropriate.

    Just this last couple of weeks I have been planning to adapt this model so that students are given the choice to choose the marker they are working on in the context of the Science or History or Literature they are currently investigating in their classrooms. The students would decide how to best demonstrate their understanding of the marker and work towards showing and telling how they are doing this.

    Aviva, your blog post has many parallels to my situation down here in Sydney, Australia – students need to be given choice, voice and the skills to confidently articulate and demonstrate their learning. Guided, modelled and shared reading undertaken in purposeful ways in larger blocks of time will allow students to actually be able to show what they can do. It may not look like the traditional way, but given that students are invested in their learning and have control over their learning, and can show they ARE learning in an inquiry based way, then who is to say that the traditional way is the only way for our students?

    Lori’s comment really backs up this approach and has given me some more information to “tweek” what I am doing with my students. Being brave and taking the necessary steps to try out new ways is hard, but in my experience a valuable and valid form of reflection and of providing learning experiences for students to use to become confident, self regulating lovers of learning.

    Thank you so much Aviva and Lori for extending my thinking and learning this morning 🙂 . Much appreciated.


    • Thanks Kim for sharing your experiences and where you want to go next! I’d love to know how things go and any changes that you make along the way. What a great opportunity to be able to support students in so many different grades and work with so many different teachers as well. I’d love to know what they think of this model too.


  6. Aviva and Lori,
    Thank you both for your posts. They have provided a lot for me to reflect on as I work with teachers in my Board. As an Instructional Coach, I see many teachers grappling with “fitting it all in”, and simply accepting that subjects like Social Studies and Science need to “take a back seat” to Literacy and Math. You both clarify that this does not need to be the case, and that we can still have all the components of balanced literacy within a more open, inquiry based approach. How incredibly liberating to not be “teaching to the bell” and trying to “jam it all in”, which after all, only frustrates students, and deters from their love of learning….exactly opposite to what we want to achieve!

    • I totally agree, Caroline! It’s amazing what a change it can be when we’re not “working to the bell,” and worrying about “giving up Social Studies and Science” for “math and literacy.” Now students can deeply learn all of these subjects, but now really have the time to do so. And comprehensive literacy is still there (and still so important), but we’re not doing these modelled, shared, and guided lessons in isolation from content-area materials. I think that this is one of the biggest changes for me! I’d be curious to hear what some teachers in your Board think if they give this model a try. What impact do they see on student achievement?


  7. Kim,

    An easy way to “tweak” within a curriculum inquiry……………”Show me what you know about (Whatever your focus is)?” I have suggested to some of my colleagues this is an easy way to “let go” without “LETTING GO”. Oh no the song is in my head again!!!!!!!!! I find I use this to give some “structure and focus” if we are involved in a particular curriculum related inquiry! In Ontario here there is not much “meat” to the grade one curriculum so we can be more open ended with our inquiry like our ELPK Program is designed around, but there are a few “Units of Study if you can call them that” to incorporate and I have used this model over the past 3 weeks(on some days) to keep the focus on “The Community”. Funny I use this “Show me what you know….” for a day or 2 and the kids automatically do it as they are so eager to please and be like the teacher……………until fun Friday hits and even though they have dubbed it this much or our learning is extended into the play without them even realizing they are doing it! Good luck!

    • This is a great suggestion, Lori! Even in an older grade, I find myself using so much more of “show me what you know,” but under the guise of the curriculum expectations. The general topic may be given to them, but how they show me their learning, varies. Their questions help guide so much of their exploration, and often guide where we go next.


      • Lori and Aviva,
        Thanks for the suggestion of “show me what you know” as a way of keeping focus. I just know that this is what I want the students to do and will tie it to curriculum and the continuum 🙂

        My teachers are finding it really difficult to ” fit it all in” especially in tiny bits of time all over the day – a bigger deeper focus on the exploration and investigation of important ideas through a unit focus rather than a timetable focus seems the best way to learn.

        Thanks so much again for your thoughts and ideas. Aviva, I will blog about this soon 😉


        • Wow this is exactly where our teachers are at in grade 1 at out school ! We are struggling to know how to best work with the students coming out of FDK. How do we do “balanced literacy” & inquiry. I really appreciate your honest sharing. Please keep the conversation going!

          • Thanks for the comment, Lois! I think that many people are struggling with this same question. Hopefully more people will share what they do and why. It’s so worth combining comprehensive literacy and inquiry: students benefit the most!


        • Thanks Kim! I think that Lori’s “show me what you know,” will really help! I’d love to know what your teachers think. Please let me know when you blog about this. I’m eager to read the post.

          Have a great day!

  8. Hi Aviva!

    I am late to this conversation but you have made me feel so much better! I have just switched over to a very similar day as you have after 2 1/2 years of trying to fit it all in at the Grade 6 level. I just decided to follow my gut instinct. You are right, both my students and I are enjoying learning so much more. I am not quite as far as you, however. I am having trouble fitting in word study. Any advice? Heidi has also been a huge contributor to my changes and I am learning everyday. I am coming to school now with much more enthusiasm. I know this shift will be a huge benefit when I have a 5/6 split next year.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lisa! So glad that you’re trying this type of set-up as well and seeing success. It does make learning so much more fun for teachers and students — doesn’t it? I can imagine what a huge help Heidi has been. I know that she supports me a lot online.

      As for word study, I’ve found success working with words through the vocabulary that comes from Science and Social Studies. Sometimes I incorporate word study as part of my guided reading group time. Depending on student needs depends on how much time I spend on this component. I can address some word study through writing, and sometimes I need different mini-lessons instead. If you feel as though your students need more support, you could try a word study entry activity: some kind of “working with words” activity that students even play around with before the bell. I know that Angie Harrison (@techieang) does this with her Kindergarten students with much success. I’m sure that this could be adapted for junior level students as well. Good luck!

      All the best next year! You’ll love the 5/6, I’m sure! Splits are fantastic!

  9. I love this post I love the comments – I am Very fortunate to have found this post today – this is exactly where I am at in my programming, and this is filling in many if the new questions that I am formulating for myself! I am going to come back to this post and continue to ponder the ideas that are very much in line with mine! Thank you so much!

    • Thanks for the comment, Debbie! I’m so glad that you found this post, and I’m so glad that it’s what you wanted. I’m definitely curious to see how this format works in Grade 1 this year. I’d love to hear more about what you decide to do and how it works. There is a lot of value to comprehensive literacy, but there’s also a lot of value to inquiry: I love that they can exist together!


  10. After teaching grade 1/2 for 15 years and feeling exactly the same way, I knew a change was needed, that although the kids were learning and they just loved “Mrs.T”, a change had to happen! I began this journey last year after reading posts from Lori and I was hooked! Although my steps were small, I did begin to notice a change with my students. They loved taking ownership, they thrived on finding out more and sharing, the excitement they brought every day was amazing. I truly believe that this new approach is ground breaking! It will allow all students to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of accomplishment. They will all be able to feel success. next year I am moving to kindergarten and I can’t wait to learn more and make amazing leaps and bounds with the kids! This truly is the best job ever!

    • Thanks for your comment, Deedee! I just love your excitement and positive attitude towards teaching. I think that this approach also helps further create and nourish these feelings. When we see what kids can do, it’s hard not to be excited. Have a wonderful time next year in Kindergarten. I hope that you’ll share how things go.


      P.S. Lori continues to be a huge inspiration to me too.

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