A Classroom Literacy Rich Environment

Getting students absorbed in meaningful, purposeful literacy activities requires a number of significant changes in the classroom – in the physical environment, in the events and activities, and in the nature and quality of the interactions. Noel Jones

By now, your classrooms are all set up, decorated and in full use by your students!  But I have a question to ask you: Is your classroom Literacy-Rich?  During my tenure as a district literacy trainer for Douglas County Schools in Colorado, I trained hundreds of elementary and secondary teachers in a program for best practices in teaching literacy that we called LIFT (Literacy Instructional Framework for Teaching). This program was based on the program, California Early Literacy Learning.

One of the most important components of LIFT was ensuring that teachers, especially those in elementary schools and teaching secondary Language Arts, had a “literacy-rich environment” in their classroom.  Dr. Kimberly Tyson defines this environment as: “a setting that encourages and supports speaking, listening, reading, and writing in a variety of authentic ways – through print & digital media”. During our LIFT training, we focused on the following components of the “LRE”: classroom materials, classroom design/layout and reading and writing through authentic activities.

Classroom Materials: The Classroom Library

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This how NOT to do a classroom library! Sadly it was mine back in the 90’s, a rolling cart with books on both sides. Ugh!

The classroom materials necessary for an LRE include books, books, and more books, as well as other print materials: magazines, comic books, online reading material, as well as print on the walls, writing materials, and displays of student work. During our training sessions, I spent a great deal of time discussing classroom libraries and how best to make them inviting, organized and useful. As an elementary teacher back in 1994, I had never been taught how to set up an effective classroom library, and mine was appalling, as evidenced in this photo.  Yup, that’s it..both sides of the rolling cart filled with books! Inviting…NO! Organized…NO!

At our training sessions, I began by asking our teachers this question:  Is the classroom library inviting, providing a range of quality books at all appropriate levels?  However, it’s not enough to have an inviting classroom library, it needs to be organized! Teachers can use many methods to organize…using bins/baskets separated by popular authors, levels of books, topics, etc. There must also be a clear and easy check-out system.  Check out the photo gallery of some exemplary classroom libraries!  

(Click on each picture in the photo tile below for explanation and credit!)

After leaving the classroom and moving into offices as either a literacy, GT or RtI specialist, I managed to hang on to some sort of classroom libraries: (notice the Laura Ingalls Wilder shrine on the right!)

Classroom Materials: Words All Over the Place!

“A printrich environment is one in which “children interact with many forms of print, including signs, labeled centers, wall stories, word displays, labeled murals, bulletin boards, charts, poems, and other printed materials” (Kadlic and Lesiak, 2003).

What goes on your classroom walls is important as well!  I never learned about an LRE in my teacher prep training, but I attempted it in my 5th/6th-grade classroom…sometimes to excess! Some of my displays probably overwhelmed my students…evidence below:

All grade levels need to have a great deal of print on the walls that assist students with (depending on the grade level) the alphabet, sight words, phonics concepts, writing and content vocabulary.  Of course, you can buy commercial posters, make some online, or print on chart paper. But more ownership comes when these materials are created with the help of the students through Interactive Writing (sometimes also called Shared Writing). Check out the interactive writing that students can continue to refer to during the school year…(these were all taken in Douglas County School District classrooms during my literacy training years, 2006-2009). More on interactive writing, including how to use it with older students, and in content areas, in a future blog!

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I even tried to maintain a print-rich environment in and right outside of my offices once I left the classroom! This was a display in the hall outside my door for our upcoming all-school Star Wars Day my GT students were planning!

And don’t forget Word Walls!  There are so many ways to create word walls: on the wall (of course) personal word walls, or electronic word walls. Content area classrooms in secondary schools should have them too and so should art, music, and PE teachers!  More on Word Walls in a future blog!399

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A Personal Word Wall that I had one of my tutoring students create on Padlet for her self-selected words in her book. We then use this wall for various activities to help her not only learn the words but retain them.

(Click on each picture in the photo tile above for explanation and credit!)

Classroom Design and Layout

“The room arrangement should encourage repeated opportunities to interact with literacy materials and activities to practice skills that students are learning.” (Gunn, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995)

Another question teachers need to ask themselves is:  Does the room arrangement support all literacy activities of the instructional framework? How your room is set-up can affect how successful your literacy activities are!  What area will allow for a large enough classroom library, where students can both read and browse for books? Where will content print be hung so that students can use as a reference? And most importantly, where is your whole class meeting area?  This is something that I never had in my 90’s intermediate classroom; again, I had never been taught or told to have one! But in my classroom visits, I saw the power of this space, not only in primary classrooms but also in intermediate! These areas are used for read-aloud, shared reading, interactive writing, interactive editing (all topics coming soon to this blog!) and mini-lessons. And of course, they can be used for class meetings as well.  You also need an area for your small group instruction work. Check out some ways teachers have designed their whole-class meeting and small group instruction areas!

(Click on each picture in the photo tile below for explanation and credit!)

Authentic Literacy

Children who are successful at becoming literate view reading and writing as authentic activities from which they get information and pleasure, and by which they communicate with others. – Richard Allington, Classrooms That Work

Finally, a literacy-rich environment needs to include authentic literacy activities, not ones created by publishing companies (disclaimer: nothing wrong with using these occasionally, but authentic stuff creates better readers/writers!). NWEA states that: “Authentic learning occurs when activities or projects offer students an opportunity to directly apply their knowledge or skills to real-world situations.”  So what are examples of authentic literacy activities?  Here are a few ideas in the slideshow below: daily class or personal news, novel character texts (I used http://ios.foxsash.com/), real text from tutoring student to parent using a vocabulary word, thank you notes, a character “Fakebook” page using Classtools.net, or this Google Doc template, and an Instagram template! For more ideas, check out my Pinterest board on the Literacy-Rich Environment for even more!

And that’s a wrap for this week! I would like to thank the following teachers for sharing photos of their classrooms!

  • Kelly Broecker, 5th grade, Gold Rush Elementary in Parker, CO
  • Sarah Rumsey, 3rd grade, Aspen Crossing Elementary in Aurora, CO
  • Renee Hartwig-Ott, 2nd grade, Westgate Elementary School in Lakewood, CO
  • Carol McRae, 6th grade writing, Sagewood Middle School, Parker, CO
  • Abby Schmitz, 2nd grade, Ruth Hill, Lincoln NE
  • Leslie Schlag, Pre-School, Cherokee Trails Elementary, Parker, CO
  • Angela Davis, Kindergarten, Saddle Ranch Elementary, Highlands Ranch, CO
  • The many K-12 Douglas County School District teachers who attended my literacy training sessions (LIFT) from 2006-2009!

Author: Jan Anttila

I recently retired after 25 years of teaching (yay!) I started my own tutoring and consulting business and am now anxious to share my passion for teaching and many lessons, projects and activities I did with my students over the years, as well my current practices for tutoring.

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