Main Body

1. A Brief Introduction to Literacy

Kristen A. Munger


This chapter provides an overview of what literacy is and why it is important, along with some key questions designed to assess background knowledge related to literacy teaching and learning. At the end of the chapter, tips are provided to students and teacher educators for how to get the most from the textbook. A series of activities is also provided to deepen understanding of literacy and to facilitate planning for becoming an effective teacher of literacy.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, readers will be able to

  1. discuss different ways to define literacy and other literacy-related terms, along with reasons why definitions have evolved;
  2. explain the role of literacy as a gateway to all learning and why strong literacy skills are essential for functioning in a contemporary, globalized society;
  3. discuss the scope of literacy knowledge prior to reading the rest of the textbook, and formulate a plan for how to add to what is known;
  4. summarize ways to use this textbook to gain knowledge about literacy teaching and learning.


If you took to the streets one day to find out how people define literacy, chances are you would get a lot of different answers. Literacy is one of those terms that at first seems straightforward, but as pointed out by Keefe and Copeland (2011), asking people to define literacy “deceptively suggests simplicity, but instead opens up a world of complexity” (p. 92).

Because there are so many different ways people think about literacy, it is worthwhile to examine some ideas associated with it. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 2009-2014) has discussed literacy not just in reference to teaching practices in U.S. schools but in reference to the meaning of literacy across the world. Two key components to their description are that literacy is a “fundamental human right” and is the “foundation for lifelong learning” (para. 1).

My Burgeoning Understanding of the Meanings of Literacy

I did not really begin to appreciate literacy as a fundamental human right until I started working in schools. My first professional career was as a school psychologist, and in this role, I had many opportunities to observe children who had developed extraordinarily high levels of literacy, and also many children who had not. As part of my job, I worked with teams to find out which students who were struggling had learning disabilities in literacy areas, such as reading, listening comprehension, oral expression, and written expression. I became perplexed when I realized that a rather large number of students who were having trouble developing literacy skills did not necessarily have learning disabilities. So I delved into research on literacy and discovered that what I observed was common in many schools across the nation.

As I continued to research literacy, I found many sources of information that included recommendations for how to teach literacy but comparably fewer sources that featured credible research on the effectiveness of recommended methods. It seemed like almost everyone had an opinion about the best ways to teach literacy, but there was not a lot of research to back up these opinions. Part of the problem was that there were far too many approaches to teaching literacy for people to research. After all, teachers make hundreds of instructional decisions per day, and not all of these decisions can be supported by expensive studies that may take years to conduct. But an additional and bewildering problem was that some sources of information continued to include teaching recommendations that high quality research studies had determined were not effective. Keep in mind that these experiences occurred before the preoccupation with accountability that now exists in U.S. schools, so the positive or negative effects of instruction were not as closely monitored.

One principal I met told me that she believed that many ineffective practices were connected to the “love curriculum.” When I asked her what she meant, she told me that some educators simply cling to teaching what they love, regardless of the effects on students. I also began to wonder if at least part of the problem was that teachers were not made aware of quality research findings that could better inform their practices. Many teachers could point to a citation in a written document as proof that a practice was research-based, but when I began to track down citation sources, I would often find links to new sources and citations that never led to credible research backing the original claim. I realized how confusing and frustrating the research landscape must be for teachers seeking information. If it was taking me hours to track down and evaluate research evidence for a claim made in a teacher publication, I could not imagine what it would be like for teachers to try to access this information, all while managing a full time teaching job.

As I continued my search for answers for why so many students were struggling with literacy, I came across a rather dense article by Vellutino et al. (1996) that strongly influenced my perspective on literacy development, and ultimately influenced my choice of career. Since I do not have enough space or most readers’ attention to describe the study in full detail, I will just describe the part of the study that shifted my worldview. The researchers evaluated a large group of kindergarten students across multiple schools to gauge the students’ reading levels and cognitive skills (e.g., memory and language processing). Then, in first grade, half of the children with the lowest reading levels received 30-minute sessions of high quality tutoring, while the other half received the usual interventions and supports provided by their schools. What the researchers found was that after only one semester of tutoring, 67% of the low readers raised their reading scores to be average or above average. The reason why this study’s findings were a game changer for me was that a commonly held belief was that children who were having difficulty learning how to read must have something wrong with them, and that it is part of a school psychologist’s job to figure out what was wrong with the child. What Vellutino and colleagues discovered was that the majority of first grade students who struggled with reading could learn to read quite well, but the trick was focusing on the kind of instruction children needed rather than focusing on what was wrong with children.

As a school psychologist, my practice began to shift from seeking explanations of literacy problems based on fixed factors within the child, to seeking solutions within the instructional environment. I narrowed my literature searches to prevention and intervention studies, and I began to attend numerous professional development sessions on these topics. As my expertise grew, there also grew a demand for me to share what I was learning with teachers, school psychologists, and administrators in surrounding schools. Each year, I was asked to provide more staff development at local area schools, and I began to realize that what I really wanted to do was teach others about literacy. Since the study by Vellutino et al., a broad array of informative studies have been published with credible research findings to inform literacy teaching practices.

As a result of this chain of events, I ended my 12-year career as a school psychologist and went back to school to obtain a Ph.D. in Reading Education at Syracuse University. I decided that I not only wanted to share existing research on literacy, but I also wanted to learn how to conduct research myself. It was at this point that I began to conceptualize literacy in the same way that UNESCO discussed it—as a “fundamental human right . . . foundation[al] for lifelong learning” (para. 1). I began to feel a social obligation to work toward helping students achieve high levels of literacy. It is this journey that has led me to co-author and edit this textbook for you, since what you do will have a major influence on what your students know and can do, not only in your classroom, but for the rest of their lives. This textbook will not only provide you with access to research information but will also instruct you on how to evaluate research claims and how to locate trustworthy information about literacy practices. I want you to join me in helping students achieve high levels of literacy. Reading and discussing information within the chapters of this textbook are important steps in our work together.

In addition to the influence of Vellutino et al. (1996) on my thinking, I have had numerous other epiphanies that have shaped my future teaching, writing, and research. One notable moment occurred while I was conducting a research project with a diverse group of students, in which about a quarter of them spoke a language other than English at home and where there were six different races/ethnicities represented among them. On a day that I was observing at a school, a reading teacher was testing a little boy who was African American and had a medical condition that required numerous visits to the school nurse. Based on the reading teacher’s assessment, it became apparent that the child was experiencing considerable difficulties developing his skills in reading and writing. My moment of insight occurred as I walked with the little boy to the nurse, alongside the reading teacher. I suddenly recognized how every dimension of this child contributed to his literacy development. These dimensions included his family, his race and culture, his gender, his feelings, his peers, his teachers, his physical needs, and so many other identities and experiences that resulted in this little boy needing to leave his classroom to see the school nurse because he had not gotten enough to eat at breakfast.

Other moments of insight arrived to me at similarly unexpected times. I can recall working with a high school student who was probably one of the most intellectually gifted people I had ever met. He was an avid reader who understood the world in such unique and sophisticated ways, given the relatively short time he had existed in it. When I observed him in his classes, he readily shared his knowledge and insights in class discussions; however, he simply would not engage in academic writing. Although his verbal reasoning was strong, his writing looked like it came from a first or second grader. His handwriting was messy, his spelling was jumbled, and his ideas were disorderly. The student had been diagnosed with a serious medical condition. His condition impacted his ability to express his ideas in writing but did not appear to negatively impact his spoken language. I observed his use of literacy skills in science, math, history, and the arts, and I also observed how difficult it was for teachers to understand and accommodate the extremes in his literacy capabilities. For students at all grade levels, I began to see how unique the learning of literacy was, along with how much teachers needed to know and be able to do to teach literacy to diverse groups of learners.

Discussion of Key Terms Used Throughout This Textbook

As you read this textbook, you will find that certain key terms, which are described below, recur throughout many of the chapters. You will notice that some authors use these terms to reflect broad meanings, whereas other authors use these terms to discuss only one or two aspects of their meanings. Authors will signal to you what they mean when they use these terms so that you can understand which aspects apply to each chapter.

Language Comprehension

In this textbook, the meaning of “language comprehension” is represented by a schematic by Scarborough (2002) featured prominently in Chapters 3 and 4 of this textbook. Language comprehension consists of the interweaving of language components, including the background knowledge someone has, along with knowledge of vocabulary, language structures (e.g., grammar), verbal reasoning abilities, and literary knowledge (e.g., genres). In addition, language comprehension also includes personal aspects of comprehension, such as the experiences individuals draw upon to construct meaning (Shanahan et al., 2010).


The term “literacy” is used in this textbook to refer to a wide range of skills and abilities related to reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and performing (National Governors Association & Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA & CCSSO], 2010), along with an array of perspectives that situate literacy within a sociocultural context. While traditional definitions of literacy have centered mostly on the ability to read and write, contemporary definitions include social practices, such as those associated with culture and power (Freire & Macedo, 1987) that are interwoven among all literacy practices, including teaching, learning, and using literacy. Furthermore, the digital age has brought forth innovative changes in how people make meaning, so the term literacy also includes making meaning from different modes of communication, which are described next.


In this textbook, the term “modes” is consistent with how the term is used in the New London Group (1996), who defined modes to include traditional expressions of meaning such as spoken and written language, as well as other forms of expression, including “Visual Meanings (images, page layouts, screen formats); Audio Meanings (music, sound effects); Gestural Meanings (body language, sensuality); Spatial Meanings (the meanings of environmental spaces, architectural spaces); and Multimodal Meanings” (p. 80), which involve integration of the other modes.

Reading Comprehension

The meaning of “reading comprehension” in this textbook is based on a definition by the RAND Reading Study Group (Snow, 2002) and was also featured in an influential reading comprehension practice guide released by Institute of Education Sciences (Shanahan et al., 2010). This definition includes “the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language” (Snow, 2002, p. xiii) and the “capacities, abilities, knowledge, and experiences” one brings to the reading situation (p. 11).


In this textbook, the term “text” refers not only to printed documents but other forms of communication in which a listener, speaker, reader, writer, or viewer can make meaning of a message. While many chapter authors refer to texts as printed documents, other authors use the term to refer to more diverse modes of communication, including:

The social and cultural linkages among our reading of books, viewing of films and television, screening of videos, surfing the web, playing computer games, seeing advertising billboards, and even wearing T-shirts and drinking from coffee mugs that belong to multimedia constellations. (Lemke, 2005, p. 4)

Questions Related to Literacy Research and Practice

Included below are some questions to explore your background knowledge of literacy prior to reading the rest of this textbook. Thinking about your background knowledge will help you connect what you are about to learn with the funds of knowledge that you bring to learning more about literacy research and practice.

  1. How does research contribute to what teachers do in classrooms with their students?
  2. How do young children learn how to recognize words and comprehend texts?
  3. What are some similarities and differences in how writing is taught to young children versus adolescents?
  4. What influence has the digital age had on literacy teaching and learning?
  5. What instructional strategies are most beneficial for English language learners?
  6. What do the terms “multimodality” and “new literacies” mean in reference to literacy teaching and learning?
  7. How do race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and linguistic factors impact the literacy opportunities of students from dominant and traditionally marginalized groups?

If you did not know how to fully answer most of the questions, then this textbook will provide you with a wealth of information that you will need to know and be able to use to become an effective teacher of literacy. Even if you have a great deal of background knowledge related to literacy, this textbook will provide you with helpful examples for how to use that knowledge in your teaching. See the “Questions and Activities” section at the end of this chapter for ideas for how to create a learning plan to prioritize what knowledge and experiences you may want to acquire to become or remain an effective teacher of literacy.

Overview of This Textbook

Steps to Success: Crossing the Bridge Between Literacy Research and Practice was written for preservice and practicing teachers who want to better meet the needs of their students. The book was written by authors with expertise spanning major topics in literacy. A fundamental goal in the creation of this textbook was to present information on literacy research and practice in interesting ways. Included in the book are many relevant examples from the field to facilitate a problem-solving approach to becoming an effective teacher. An important aim of each chapter is to promote the idea that literacy teaching is a dynamic and complex synthesis of research, theory, and practice, as opposed to silos of difficult-to-apply information. An important end result of instructional decisions educators make, and practices they use, is that decisions should bring about benefits to students. This means that individuals preparing to be effective teachers must not only understand the complexity of literacy but also how to make informed decisions in spite of this complexity. This textbook does not contain all of the answers you will need to make these decisions about teaching literacy, but when used in combination with all of the other experiences you will have in becoming an educator, it will add to what you know and will be able to do to help students develop their literacy skills.

This book spans many topics related to literacy teaching and learning. Following the introductory chapter you are now reading, Chapter 2 provides an overview of literacy research, followed by Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, which relate to the development of word reading skills and reading comprehension, based on an important theoretical framework known as the “Simple View of Reading” (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). Chapter 5 provides background on literacy assessment, followed by Chapter 6, which addresses approaches to writing instruction for elementary school children. Chapter 7 provides background on how the digital age can creatively enhance the teaching of children’s literature. Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 address literacy teaching and learning in relation to two important and often underserved student groups, including English language learners and students with intellectual disabilities. Chapter 10, Chapter 11, and Chapter 12 focus on adolescent literacy, including 21st century literacy, teaching adolescent writers, and the use of discipline specific literacy strategies in culturally responsive ways. Chapter 13 provides an overview of world language and literacy development, and Chapter 14 instructs readers how to analyze their use of language to explore both literacy and identity.

Similar to this introductory chapter, the other chapters begin with an abstract describing what the chapter is about, followed by a brief but important set of learning objectives. Next is an introduction to the main topic(s) covered, followed by the body of the chapter and a set of questions, resources, websites and/or activities readers can explore to problem-solve case studies and plan their future teaching. At the end of each chapter is a reference section with all of the sources authors used to write their chapters. Although readers of textbooks do not always take the time to look through the references of a body of work, readers are encouraged to explore these documents to further fact-check the knowledge and practices they are being asked to integrate into their teaching, as well as to deepen their knowledge of current issues within the field of literacy research and practice.

To Students Who Read This Textbook

To students who are assigned to read chapters from this textbook, please consider the following advice for getting the most from it. This book is intended to provide you with some of the knowledge you will need to become an effective teacher. It is certainly not the only source of knowledge you will need but is meant to serve as an important foundation to ease the learning of content you will encounter in other courses and at your field placements. It is also meant to inform your future teaching, so it is important to read the information and think about it in reference to your teaching rather than just reading it to get an assignment out of the way. Students may also be tempted to think about literacy as being only related to reading and writing, and therefore, only associated with English language arts and English classes, but as argued previously, literacy is much broader than this and permeates every single subject taught in schools. Approaching this book with a broad view of literacy as it relates to making meaning across all school experiences will help prevent readers who may be planning to teach subjects within the domains of science, math, physical education, social studies, and the arts from mistakenly assuming that literacy teaching is not relevant to their practice.

And remember, if you are planning to become a teacher, preparing to teach is not accomplished by simply taking a series of required courses and electives at a college or university. You are making a career choice, and to be successful in a career, you must develop a commitment to preparing for it, not only by participating meaningfully in your college courses but by constantly evaluating your progress toward professional goals, and seeking additional experiences in areas where you need to learn more. When you begin working toward becoming a teacher, rather than just trying to meet course expectations, remember to keep your focus on how to develop the skills you need to help students learn from what you do.

To Teacher Educators Who Use This Textbook

To teacher educators who plan to use this book in their classes, please consider the following advice to get the most from it. You may wish to assign one, many, or all of the chapters according to your instructional goals and objectives. Each chapter was designed to fit together with the other chapters but was also written to stand alone on the topics addressed. Because the book is published as a freely accessible e-book with Open SUNY and a Creative Commons 4.0 license, you can use chapters freely that will benefit your students, without worrying about how the cost of the book will impact your selection of other course-related resources.

Also note that each chapter has clear objectives, self-assessments, and ideas for activities that can be completed in or out of the classroom to help students gain further knowledge about the teaching and learning of literacy. Consider incorporating some of these activities into your syllabus so that students are actively engaged not only in doing the readings but also using what is learned to make instructional decisions for the children and adolescents whom they will encounter in educational field placements and when they enter the field of education. In addition, links to websites and references included in each of the chapters may be valuable for your students to explore more fully, depending on your course objectives.


This introductory chapter was designed to orient you to ways to define and think about literacy, as well as familiarize you with the format and purposes of this textbook. Literacy is complex and requires a great deal of knowledge to appreciate and a great deal of effort to teach. Included in this chapter was a discussion of literacy in terms of its scope—that it is not limited to reading and writing but encompasses a diverse set of modalities—such as listening, speaking, viewing, and performing, as well as factors related to sociocultural and digital influences. Because research continues to provide insights into some of the most enduring questions in the field, learning how to teach literacy is somewhat of a moving target. It takes high levels of knowledge, skill, and effort to teach children and adolescents literacy, while continuing to stay informed of research findings that may help improve your practice.

Keep in mind that the snapshot of literacy represented in this textbook does not include your experiences, so there are many things left for you to learn. Also absent from this textbook are the many answers to important literacy questions that will be generated by future research in the coming decades. What this means is that everyone with an interest in literacy must be prepared for lifelong study, not only of what literacy is today, but also what literacy will become.

Questions and Activities

  1. Find one or two students who have taken college literacy courses, and a few other individuals (e.g., classmates, friends, family members) who have not taken any literacy courses. Ask them to define literacy, and write down what they say. Bring your definitions to class and compare what your informants said compared to other students’ informants. Discuss how the definitions overlap and are different. What assumptions about teaching and learning accompany the definitions (e.g., if literacy were narrowly defined as being able to read and write, how might teaching and learning a subject like math or art look and sound different than if literacy were defined more broadly)?
  2. Using an online discussion board, a wiki, or in person, select someone to write a single sentence to define literacy. Have that person select a classmate to add to and/or refine the definition, with the new person then selecting someone else to continue the process. Add to the initial definition until everyone in the class has had an opportunity to contribute (be sure each person cites any sources he or she uses before passing the task to the next person). After reading this textbook and accessing other sources about literacy, revisit your definition. Are there aspects you want to stay the same? Are there aspects you want to change? Individually refine the class’s definition to represent your definition of literacy, and write a brief reflection providing justification for your definition. Save your definition and reflection for later use for when you write a teaching philosophy that incorporates literacy.
  3. In what way is literacy being shaped by the digital age? Discuss ways in which your own literacy experiences have broadened through the use of technology. Are there digital tools that you find essential to your own literacy learning? What concerns do you have related to the affordability and accessibility of digital tools for children in U.S. schools and around the world?
  4. What do you think about literacy being defined as a fundamental human right? Is literacy like other basic human rights or is it more of a luxury? If certain groups are denied access to literacy opportunities, such as in nations where some social norms may discourage access to schooling for girls, would you argue that this is a cultural difference, a human rights violation, both, or neither? Debate your thinking with a small group of classmates, while making sure to include peers who have different cultural backgrounds from your own.
  5. Begin to draft a learning plan that can lead to your becoming an effective teacher of literacy. First, talk to employers, inservice teachers, college instructors, advisors, and classmates about what you will need to know and be able to do when you are hired as a teacher. Next, identify goals you have not already attained related to your knowledge and practice of teaching. Your goals may be related to content you want to teach, student groups with whom you want to work, your own interests in literacy, and any certification tests you may need to pass. Begin creating a plan incorporating the knowledge and experiences you will need to develop. Revisit your plan each semester, and actively monitor your progress toward reaching your goals. Finally, be sure to include what you will need to know and be able to do after you are hired as a teacher in a school. Becoming an effective teacher is a process, not an event, so frequent reflection on what you need to do to remain effective is essential.


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Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6-10. doi:10.1177/074193258600700104

Keefe, E. B., & Copeland, S. R. (2011). What is literacy? The power of a definition. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 36, 92-99. Retrieved from

Lemke, J. (2005). Towards critical multimedia literacy: Technology, research, and politics. In M. McKenna, D. Reinking, L. Labbo, & R. Kieffer (Eds.), International handbook of literacy & technology (Vol. 2, pp. 3-14). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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Scarborough, H. S. (2002). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. B. Neuman & D. K. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (pp. 97-110). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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

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Vellutino, F. R., Scanlon, D. M., Sipay, E. R., Small, S. G., Pratt, A., Chen, R., & Denckla, M. B. (1996). Cognitive profiles of difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers: Early intervention as a vehicle for distinguishing between cognitive and experiential deficits as basic causes of specific reading disability. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 601-638. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.88.4.601

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (2009-2014). Education: Literacy. Retrieved from building-blocks/literacy/