Afterschool Focus: You Don’t Have to Be a Reading Teacher to Support Literacy in Afterschool

Literacy is the backbone of a student’s success in school. It includes reading, writing, speaking, listening, and an understanding of the conventions of the English language—skills that help students master content, communicate ideas, and engage in critical thinking and problem solving.1 Literacy is so critical that proficiency in reading at the end of third grade is one of the key predictors of whether a student will graduate high school.2 After a young person leaves secondary school, literacy becomes critical to advancing in postsecondary education and the workforce and even to navigating the responsibilities of their adult lives.3

When we think of literacy enrichment in afterschool, we might envision tutoring and homework help at a scheduled time, often provided by someone who teaches language arts during the school day. Although these activities undoubtedly have a role in afterschool programs, we encourage you to make literacy enrichment a program-wide endeavor that all staff can support.

Studies have found that high-quality afterschool programs can help students make gains in literacy, even if those programs do not have an explicit emphasis on this subject. Programs can still offer a variety of literacy activities throughout the year to supplement school-day learning, prevent summer learning loss, and create literacy habits and a love for reading among students and their families.4 Below are some ways that your entire afterschool team can support literacy in afterschool.

Provide a safe and supportive environment for reading. Begin by offering opportunities for students to see themselves as successful readers. This includes offering books of varying difficulty levels so that students have access to texts that are challenging but achievable.5 While encouraging students to enjoy their successes, you can also create an environment where students see mistakes as an opportunity to learn rather than a sign of failure. This can happen, in part, by focusing the process on learning and students’ effort as they work to improve literacy skills. When giving feedback to students, try sharing observations and asking questions instead of simply giving students instructions on what to do next. By providing guidance and helping students think through problems and challenges, afterschool professionals can help students improve literacy skills and also develop confidence in their ability to learn.

Help students discover the purpose and benefits of reading. We know from research that emphasizing grades and test scores is not the most effective way to improve literacy outcomes, especially for adolescent students. In fact, researchers have found that students’ levels of text recall and comprehension are lower when teachers emphasize grades than when they express an interest in how much students can understand and remember.6 Afterschool professionals can motivate students to improve literacy skills by linking them to subjects they care about. A struggling reader may be motivated to learn vocabulary words for a robotics project or practice reading to participate in a theater performance or a poetry slam.7 You can also motivate younger students, by showing them how literacy is part of their daily lives. For example, you can read out loud a sign that you pass, rules, or a message that you received, commenting how glad you are to have the information. Showing students the role of literacy in their lives will likely be more motivating than a reading assignment.8

Make real-world connections. Students are more likely to see the benefits of literacy when they connect them to their everyday lives. Look for opportunities to connect literacy to students’ lives by asking them about their interests and subjects they would like to explore. This can include issues in the community that interest students, career exploration, or hobbies, to name a few. Chances are that your afterschool program already offers several activities that connect to students’ interests. With very little effort, these activities can serve as vehicles for engaging students to improve literacy skills. For example, if a local business leader is visiting your 21st CCLC program, help students learn vocabulary words related to the guest’s occupation. Students can improve their writing and language skills by writing (and editing) letters to the editor of a local newspaper about a topic that interests them. Similarly, by preparing and delivering a news program about activities at their afterschool program, students can improve writing, fluency, and speaking skills.

Give students choices. Students of all ages are more likely to engage in literacy when they have a say in the activity.9 Choices can include what students read, in what format (e.g., paper books, ebooks, or websites), and where they read it. You can also let students decide how they want to respond to the text. Do they want to reenact the story through a dramatization, write a journal entry about the text, compose an alternate ending, or discuss a story in a book group? Finally, student choice can also include learning goals. This might mean learning new vocabulary words around a topic like space exploration, memorizing a poem they like, or improving a specific literacy skill like fluency or comprehension.

Conclusion

Literacy is too important and too enriching to limit to the purview of one or two afterschool instructors for a set period in your schedule. Instead, we challenge your afterschool team to find new ways to integrate literacy into all parts of your 21st CCLC program. By creating a supportive learning environment, showing the purpose and benefits of literacy, making real-world connections, and offering student choices, you can help boost student interest and achievement in literacy.

Footnotes

1 National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010.

2 Fiester, 2010; 2013.

3 Lesgold & Welch-Ross, 2012; Kutner, Greenberg, Jin, Boyle, Hsu, & Dunleavy, 2007.

4 Afterschool Alliance, 2015.

5 Shanahan, Callison, Carriere, Duke, Pearson, Schatschneider, & Torgesen, 2010.

6 Kamil, Borman, Dole, Kral, Salinger, & Torgesen, 2008.

7 Shanahan, Callison, Carriere, Duke, Pearson, Schatschneider, & Torgesen, 2010; Kamil, Borman, Dole, Kral, Salinger, & Torgesen, 2008.

8 Shanahan, Callison, Carriere, Duke, Pearson, Schatschneider, & Torgesen, 2010.

9 Kamil, Borman, Dole, Kral, Salinger, & Torgesen, 2008.

References 

Afterschool Alliance. (2016). Taking a Year-Round Approach to Literacy (Issue Brief No. 68). Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://afterschoolalliance.org/documents/issue_briefs/issue_year-round_literacy_68.pdf.

Fiester, L. (2010). Early warning! Why reading by the end of third grade matters. KIDS COUNT Special Report. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Fiester, L. (2013). Early warning confirmed: A research update on third-grade reading. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website: https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/.

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., and Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc.

Kutner, M., Greenberg, E., Jin, Y., Boyle, B., Hsu, Y., and Dunleavy, E. (2007). Literacy in everyday life: Results from the 2003 national assessment of adult literacy. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Lesgold, A. M., & Welch-Ross, M. (Eds.). (2012). Improving adult literacy instruction: Options for practice and research. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts. Washington D.C. Copyright Date: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/.

Shanahan, T., Callison, K., Carriere, C., Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Schatschneider, C., & Torgesen, J. (2010). Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through 3rd grade: A practice guide (NCEE 2010-4038). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuides