My mom took me to the bank to open my first account when I was in elementary school. She explained to me that a bank account was for saving money for things that I might want or need in the future.
As I grew older, all the money from my babysitting gigs and my small baking business went into that little account, slowly growing with me through middle and high school. When I got to college, that little account was more than little, and I withdrew from it when I needed important things like books, lab supplies or a new dress. My early deposits paid off when I needed them.
I think about literacy in the same way I think about that little bank account. Small, but consistent, deposits add up. The more deposits we make, the more the account grows to be drawn upon later.
Literacy — the practices, knowledge and skills required for reading, writing, speaking and listening — is an investment in our students’ futures. Beginning as early as prekindergarten, we are in the powerful and important position to make deposits into each student’s individual literacy bank. Luckily, unlike a starter bank account, students’ literacy banks don’t start empty when they begin school, and they never run a deficit. This year, students will begin the year with literacy banks that are already full of their individual cultural, linguistic and social capital that teachers can add to.
What are some contributions to students’ literacy banks that educators can make now that add up for students later?
One of the first and biggest deposits happens in the early grades with foundational skills. Systematic and explicit teaching of foundational reading skills like print concepts, phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate the component sounds that make up words), phonics and word recognition, oral comprehension and fluency in the early grades adds up to and grows into independent reading, comprehension, analysis and evaluation.
Foundational writing skills like handwriting, word and sentence composition, spelling and grammar help students build longer and more robust compositions.
All teachers can also add to students’ vocabulary bank accounts by introducing and expecting students to use academic vocabulary. Words can quickly add up and build on each other, giving students access to more nuanced vocabulary, which creates access to more nuanced topics.
Reading texts to build schematic knowledge is akin to compound interest that quickly snowballs. The more students know about a topic, the more they can learn about a topic, and the more complex texts they can access on that topic.
Because writing deepens thinking, it requires instruction and is worthy of extended time to practice. Over time, writing practices add up to complexity and sophistication. Students gain experience and confidence in writing with authentic purpose and for a real audience. Writing provides opportunities for students to narrate, explain, argue and persuade.
Oral comprehension — speaking and listening — matters, too. Turn and Talk, a strategy to create a classroom discussion that encourages all students to participate rather than only a few, builds confidence and skill to deliver presentations to a wide audience.
Beginning in pre-kindergarten, the literacy deposits teachers make day after day, year after year add up to students being able to approach complex texts competently and confidently.
Social studies and science teachers can, and should, make deposits into students’ literacy banks as well. Texts in each discipline not only require but deserve instruction tailored to the unique nuances of the texts themselves. The way one reads a physics text or primary source document is not the same way one reads a sonnet, play or piece of literature. These literacy deposits across the school day also add up to funds of knowledge and skill that students draw upon both throughout and well beyond K-12.
Literacy is an investment that pays off in major dividends over the course of a student’s entire life. The bigger the account, the more a student can do with it. With their literacy deposits, dividends and compound interest, students will be able to withdraw from their individual bank accounts to enter the postsecondary experience of their choosing, to create a future of their own.
How will you add to students’ literacy banks this year? What deposits will you make?
Miah Daughtery is director of content advocacy & design, ELA, at NWEA, a not-for-profit organization that creates assessment solutions that precisely measure growth and proficiency—and provide insights to help tailor instruction.
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