Seven Principles To Engage Your Students In Literacy Learning

Seven Principles To Engage Your Students In Literacy Learning

Literacy educators Sharon and Phil Callen discuss the seven ‘timeless T’s’ of literacy instruction that empower teachers and engage students in their literacy learning.

In Episode 2 of The Teacher’s Toolkit for Literacy, Sharon and Phil revealed the seven timeless T’s of authentic literacy instruction that support literacy growth by empowering and engaging students in their learnings.

“The challenge always is how we find that entry point for them to be able to engage successfully from where they are, because they’re all at these different abilities,” Sharon said.

“So, our approach is not a blanket program that works for everyone because not every child’s the same, and some approaches we’ve found over time are better than others.”

While there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution, Phil said there are foundational principles that work for all students.

“We’ve discovered over the years that there are certain timeless principles – we call them the timeless T’s – that seem to work for all children, and it’s backed up by the research,” he said.

“What’s really strong about the seven T’s is how they all just link together. They’re all complementary to each other and empower each other. So, it isn’t a disjointed, instructional approach – it is a very connected, linked approach.” Sharon added.

Phil started off with explaining Together, the first timeless T that promotes inclusivity in the classroom and allows both educators and students to become a teacher.

“We don’t want any child to feel like they’re not yet enough to be part of the literacy experiences … it’s much better to include everyone together than to separate,” Phil said.

“They can all be a part of that community of learners, where they’re learning from each other as well as the teacher, and so there’s an entry point for every child and it allows everyone a chance to grow in really powerful ways that wouldn’t happen.

“A great tool that illustrates this ‘Together’ principle is having a classroom library and access to books. So all children in the class at the same time can learn to choose their own reading material for their own independent reading … so, rather than trying to differentiate each group of children in your class, by having a classroom library and children choosing their own books, the books are really doing the differentiation.”

The second and third principles are Time and Tantalising Texts. Time involves allowing students plenty of time to strengthen their literacy skills by practicing their reading and writing. Tantalising Texts then build on students’ engagement levels in literacy.

“If we’re going to give students time to practice and be together to hear texts, we really need to give students access to tantalising texts,” Sharon explained.

“A text has got to mean something to students … so we really want to bring texts that are rich and have meaning and extend and take our readers into worlds that are new and tantalising and interesting.”

Having more time also includes allocating a section of the class schedule that allows students to discuss their reading and writing – a process better known as Thinkers Talking.

Both Sharon and Phil firmly believe that talking is extremely powerful, as it allows teachers to better assess their students learning, while also improving students’ comprehension of what they’re doing.

“I always make a time in my literacy sessions, whether it’s at the beginning or the middle or the end, where the children can talk about what they’re reading or what they’re writing … there’s so much thinking that’s going on that we don’t hear about it if we don’t have that time,” Phil said.

“Talk is one of the most under-utilised comprehension strategies. Sometimes we can think in our own heads ‘oh yeah, I know that’, but it’s not until we say it that we really get to a deeper understanding of what it is that we’re thinking,” Sharon added.

The next step is Transformative Teaching, where teachings are driven by the needs of students, instead of just the outlined curriculum.

“We want the teaching to not just be the next thing on the list in the program. It comes from what we notice our students need and what they are ready for next, and then we can absolutely propel them into the next step,” Sharon said.

“So, we’re still following the curriculum, that’s really important. But the order of that curriculum is not necessarily in an order of a program that’s been written – it’s more listening to the needs of your children and finding out from that conferring or the observation, and then you’re transforming your teaching,” Phil explained.


The sixth timeless T is to develop True Tasks for students, which should ‘always be embedded within reading and writing’.

“The truest tasks for readers and writers are to spend time doing those very things, doing the reading and doing the writing, not tasks about reading and writing,” Sharon said.

“If I can see that there are grammar needs that we need to talk about, I want to do that as a proofreading and editing process. I want students to be working with their own writing to learn more about that … with spelling, true spelling tasks are tasks that help us use spelling to write better and to read better.

“True tasks also [acknowledges] that we’ve got literacy linking across the content areas. It’s not just within the English lesson. True tasks are what we’re writing in science, what we’re reading across a topic – that’s the true work of the good reader and writer.”

Finally, concluding the list of principles is Transformative Tracking, which takes the evaluation of students’ learning well beyond the general test results.

“When we track the learning closely, it’s much more powerful than just looking at the results on a standardised test. I think you still need that standardised test as a gauge of the learning, but you can find out in lots of other ways through your own tracking of your children and linking it to the curriculum that you’re teaching,” Phil said.

“If we’re noticing the things that are happening in real time, then we know what the next step is. And we’ve talked about transformative teaching and responding to that tracking, which is why we’ve called the tracking transformative as well, because those two should link,” Sharon added.

“And so transformative tracking should then mean not just teacher tracking … it’s about allowing [students] to be part of the tracking of their own learning and process. So that’s transforming their learning.”

Listen to Episode 2 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy below or subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Google Podcasts.

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