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Definitions of Literacy Terms in ESEA

In each federal bill one early section is a set of definitions so that, when a word or phrase appears in a bill, readers know how that word or phrase has been used in the context of the bill. Although words within definitions carry their own connotations from past usage, the attempt with this explicit defining for the bill itself is to clarify how the words are applied within the bill.

A set of definitions exists in the Senate ESEA bill written and voted out of the HELP Committee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions). Two definitions of particular interest to us as NCTE members are “comprehensive literacy instruction” and “effective literacy instruction.”  These definitions are broader than those in either Reading First or NCLB, including some residual language but offering new language and ideas that more closely reflect what NCTE and others know about literacy instruction. For example, writing and reading are both included as essential terms and practices in literacy.  As with all bills, definitions are a compromise based on much negotiation among constituents with quite different points of view. Progress, however, is evident in multiple parts of the definitions.

“Comprehensive literacy instruction”:

Sec. 4103 Definitions, pp. 358-359 states that “The term comprehensive literacy instruction means instruction that incorporates effective literacy instruction and is designed to support developmentally appropriate, contextually explicit, systematic instruction, and frequent practice, in reading across content areas; and developmentally appropriate and contextually explicit instruction, and frequent practice, in writing across content areas.”

“Effective literacy instruction”:

“Effective literacy instruction” is divided into “general,”  “birth through kindergarten,” and “kindergarten through grade 12.” The points under each of the three divisions are expressed here with exact wording from the bill.

 The “General” section  includes 11 points:

  • Includes age-appropriate, explicit instruction in writing, including opportunities for children to write with clear purposes, with critical reasoning appropriate to the topic and purpose, and with specific instruction and feedback from instructional staff
  • Makes available and uses diverse, high-quality print materials that reflect the reading and development levels, and interests, of children
  • Uses differentiated instructional approaches, including individual and small group instruction and discussion
  • Provides opportunities for children to use language with peers and adults in order to develop language skills, including developing vocabulary
  • Includes age-appropriate, explicit, systematic, and intentional instruction in phonological awareness, phonic decoding, vocabulary, language structure, reading fluency, and reading comprehension
  • Includes frequent practice of reading and writing strategies 
  • Uses age-appropriate, valid and reliable screening assessment, diagnostic assessments, formative assessment, and summative assessments to identify a child’s learning needs, to inform instruction, and to monitor the child’s progress and the effects of instruction
  • Uses strategies to enhance children’s motivation to read and write and children’s engagement in self-directed learning
  • Incorporates the principles of universal design for learning
  • Depends on teachers’ collaboration in planning, instruction, and assessing a child’s progress and on continuous professional learning
  • Links literacy instruction to the State college and career ready academic standards, including the ability to navigate, understand, and write about, complex print and digital subject matter

The “Birth through kindergarten” section includes two points:

  • Developing children’s alphabet knowledge, reading aloud to children, discussing reading and writing with children, and modeling age and developmentally appropriate reading and writing strategies
  • Encouraging children’s early attempts at oral communication, reading, and writing

The “Kindergarten through grade 12” section includes four points: 

  • Providing systematic and intensive interventions, which can be provided inside or outside the classroom as well as before, during, or after regular school hours, to supplement regular instruction for children reading below grade level
  • Providing reading and writing opportunities that build academic vocabulary and knowledge of different text structures in core academic subjects
  • Enabling children to write, communicate, and create knowledge, in ways that fit purpose, audience, occasion, discipline, and format, including practice in adhering to language conventions, including spelling, punctuation, and grammar; planning and revising to improve clarity, coherence, logical development, and language usage; and writing individually and collaboratively with feedback from instructors and peers
  •  Cultivating shared responsibility for children’s literacy learning by coordinating writing tasks, instructional practices, and criteria for feedback across academic content areas

If you are interested in other definitions in this Senate ESEA bill, you can find them on pp. 358-381. Other terms defined include child, eligible entity, early learning program, English language acquisition, family literacy services, formative assessment, high-quality professional development, literacy coach, local educational agency, reading, instructional leader, scientifically valid research, screening assessment, state, state literacy leadership team, inclusion of a preexisting partnership, summative assessment, and writing. 


-- Barbara Cambridge, Director, NCTE Washington, DC, Office

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NCTE - The National Council of Teachers Of English

A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts