Literacy: 5 Non-Negotiables

Have you ever encountered that one student that, instantly, you knew you’d never forget?  I’m not talking about the coolest kid, the dainty little princess or even the local Doogie Howser type.  I’m talking about that one kid who connected with you in a way no other student ever could—the student who stretched you as a teacher, making you, largely who you are today.  For me, that student was Robert .

I was Robert’s 12th grade English teacher, and given the fact that I’d already had about 15 years of experience under my belt the day he entered my classroom, I felt highly confident in the teaching practices and the arsenal of instructional strategies that I was bringing to the table.  Well, let’s just say that it only took about two and a half weeks for that myth to be dismantled.


Robert’s initial assessments indicated that he possessed a smorgasbord of deficits in literacy. Though his vocabulary was above average, when compared to his peers, he was presented with major gaps in both fluency and comprehension.  My initial thought… How was I supposed to get him to a level of mastery on the 12th grade EOC when he was barely reading on a middle school level?!


As aforementioned, Robert stretched me as a teacher, but had it not been for my application of the 5 non-negotiables of literacy instruction, I would have never grown him as a student.  According to research, schools must stay laser-focused on certain elements of literacy instruction—vocabulary, knowledge-building, syntax, fluency and decoding (Woodfin and Plaut, 2017).  Most academic scholars will attest to the significance of these components in the primary years when students are learning how to read, but what about those students who somehow fall through the cracks?  If we truly believe that the most important factor affecting student learning is the teacher (Wright et al., 1997), does it not become the duty of the secondary teacher to help close the gaps?

For me, the answer was, YES.  Pooling from my training as a reading specialist, I mapped out a plan of action that would integrate all 5 literacy components in a way that was tailor-made to fit Robert’s needs, interests, and abilities.  To better understand the approach that I took, take a look at the snapshot recorded below.

Literacy Element

While these 5 literacy components have been introduced individually, rarely do they work in isolation.  For instance, through our structured focus on vocabulary acquisition, we simultaneously addressed elements of knowledge-building, fluency, and decoding.  Without question, his ability to parse complex syntax in writing came as a direct result of the growth that he experienced in the other 4 areas of literacy. 

As the year fast-forwarded from late August to early May, so did Robert’s abilities in literacy.  In the end, our efforts proved fruitful.  His initial data and benchmark assessments paled in comparison to the mark of proficiency that he scored on his EOC state assessment.  Best of all, Robert received the credit that he needed to earn his long-awaited (and once, seemingly so far out of reach) high school diploma.


Without question, Robert grew significantly the year he spent under my tutelage, and without question, I grew significantly in my understanding of secondary literacy development.  With that knowledge, I am left with two piercing revelations.  As a teacher, my experiences with Robert will forever be ingrained in my memory; and as an instructional specialist, the 5 non-negotiables of literacy instruction will forever be a part of my coaching and practice. 

-Jackye Morrisey, eduConsultant

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