About the Researcher

Catherine Snow

Catherine Snow is the Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is an expert on the language and literacy development of preschool, elementary, and middle school learners. Her extensive research looks at which teaching interventions and techniques are most effective in helping children acquire literacy and language skills. She also studies bilingual education and testing policy. See full bio


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Provide engaging tasks for students to learn literacy skills authentically

By Catherine Snow

Too many curricular interventions for literacy are focused on specific presumed deficits – achieving phonological awareness in kindergarten, distinguishing digraphs in second grade, deciphering multisyllabic words in fourth grade, applying reading comprehension strategies in sixth grade, and practicing close reading in tenth grade. While all of these targeted skills are clearly components of successful literacy performances, and students struggling with very specific domains might well benefit from some targeted teaching or practice, successful literacy learning is not just a process of aggregating lots of individual component skills. Good literacy instruction offers opportunities for students to acquire those individual component skills, but most of the time, it doesn’t actually concentrate on the skills themselves.

Instead, good literacy instruction is organized around authentic tasks to which the use of reading, writing, and academic language are integral. In the context of engaging tasks that authentically need literacy resources, students can develop and expand their literacy skills without even noticing that they are practicing and mastering them.

What are some examples of this kind of literacy instruction?

  • Second graders learning about how to plant a garden so they can write instructions for kindergartners.
  • Fourth graders collecting, recording, and analyzing data about the lead content in school drinking fountains, then writing a report for the school department.
  • Seventh graders reading a variety of articles about the impact of TV violence on children in order to formulate recommendations to parents.

Instructional programs that are built around engaging tasks have been shown to be successful, such as John Guthrie’s CORI program, the Lawrence Hall of Science’s Seeds of Science, Roots of Reading program, Reading Apprenticeship, SERP’s Word Generation, and an approach for struggling readers called STARI. All of these programs incorporate some explicit instruction, but they make clear how focusing in on the specific skills serves the larger purpose of accomplishing a dynamic, useful task.

Programs like those mentioned above are much more engaging for students than programs focused on building component skills one-by-one. These programs build decoding, fluency, comprehension, language, and interpretation skills in context, while students are focused on accomplishing a task that they care about. Students who learn literacy skills through programs like these are focused on real learning and authentic communication – achieving goals that provide enjoyment and satisfaction. The component reading skills come along for free.

This answer was developed in partnership with Usable Knowledge at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Resources for Further Learning

  • Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction

    John T. Guthrie/University of Maryland program

  • Reading Apprenticeship

    WestEd program

  • Seeds of Science / Roots of Reading

    Lawrence Hall of Science program

  • The Strategic Adolescent Reading Intervention (STARI)

    SERP intervention

  • Word Generation

    Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) program