20 Ways to Bring More Equity to Your Literacy Instruction

All kinds of readers, all kinds of writers.

20 Ways to Bring More Equity to Your Literacy Instruction
Multiethnic group of children having fun on top of the rainbow.

Just as you wouldn’t expect every child to wear the same shoes, you know literacy instruction is not one-size-fits-all. The International Literacy Association found “Equity in Literacy Education” to be the #2 topic on its 2018 “What’s Hot in Literacy” list. Many educators are thinking deeply how to best identify and meet the literacy needs of diverse students—one of the most complex aspects of teaching. Of course, there isn’t one magic solution for bringing more equity to your literacy instruction, but small changes can be impactful. We’ve gathered this list of 20 ideas to get you started.

1. Invite your students to teach you. 

Source: I Wish My Teacher Knew

The first step towards providing equitable literacy instruction is learning more about your students and their lives. The #Iwishmyteacherknew movement, sparked by educator Kyle Schwartz, makes it clear there is a lot our students need us to know about them.

2. Know your students as readers and writers.  

Quantitative data definitely informs literacy instruction, but qualitative data is also essential. Getting to know each student as a reader and writer lets you identify student strengths and needs. Expert Jennifer Serravallo suggests starting your school year with information-gathering strategies like a “kidwatching” checklist, documenting student conversations, and inviting student self-reflection.

3. Construct a working definition of “fair” with students.

Source: Office of Equity and Human Rights


In an equitable literacy classroom, students will see each other reading, writing, participating, and receiving instruction in different ways. It’s essential, then, that students can separate “fair” from “the same.” We love this band-aid activity from Teach From the Heart to concretize the idea for younger kids that “Fair…is when everyone gets just what they need!”  

4. Set up your physical space with equity in mind. 

Giving kids what their bodies need is just as crucial as delivering appropriate instruction. Experiment with changes to your seating arrangement, like swapping a U-shape for clusters. Explore standing desks or flexible seating

5. Offer a range of ways to participate. 

Teaching Tolerance reminds teachers, “Modeling equity and inclusiveness calls for a broader definition of participation that includes active listening, written response, artistic response and involvement in small groups. These options should all be valued as classroom participation.” Think about how you structure each avenue. Some students do better with more explicit frameworks for responses. Some need supports like defined roles during group work. Establishing discussion norms is key for inviting a variety of student voices.

6. Balance options for introverts and extroverts.

The world is full of successful examples of both. Send the message that your classroom can be, too. For instance, some students may be better able to complete a writing assignment when permitted to talk through ideas with seat mates. Others crave quiet spots to work, and the reassurance that they won’t have to share their work until they feel ready.

7. View differences as assets.

Look at students’ cultural, racial, and linguistic backgrounds as capital rather than deficits. Students’ experiences position them to approach reading, writing, and conversation from unique perspectives. When forming small groups for literacy work, consider what each student brings to the table. Teachers at San Francisco International High School leverage linguistic diversity by grouping both different and same language speakers. They encourage students capable of mentoring or leading peers to rise to the occasion.

8. Help students set individualized literacy goals.  

When you know students as readers and writers, you can help them set and work towards fitting goals. Try unpacking assessment data in a student-friendly way, and coaching students to use it to focus their efforts on a particular target.

9. Mind the gaps.

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Couple high expectations for students with targeted support for developing the skills and background knowledge they need to be successful. Try pairing fiction text with nonfiction, teaching reading strategies in the context of compelling text, integrating ELA and content area learning, and proactively supporting vocabulary development. Let these rock star teachers at King Middle School, a diverse school in Portland, Maine, inspire you.

10. Plan experiences that build academic language.

Academic language proficiency relates to all aspects of literacy and opens doors for students; it’s also an area in which many children need focused support. Language-based classroom activities like debates bolster academic language skills. Constructing arguments, and hearing those of others, provides fantastic experience with a range of language structures and vocabulary. 

11. Have your go-to list of supports ready.

Providing what each student needs doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel every time. Collaborate with colleagues to devise a list of go-to strategies for struggling readers and writers appropriate for the age you teach. This list from The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity is a place to start.

12. Show students the struggle is real—for everyone.

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Gravity Goldberg, educator and author, advises setting the precedent that struggling is a universal part of reading to encourage students to have a growth mindset. Emulate her four-prong conference technique, which includes modeling how she tackles her own reading challenges.  

13. Tune into executive functioning needs.

Not all kids develop executive functioning skills automatically. Lack of these skills can hinder literacy progress. To reach literacy goals, kids need to be able to regulate their emotions, break down tasks into steps, and take on others’ perspectives. Weave executive functioning goals into your literacy teaching to help kids develop these important skills.

14. Pull strategy groups.

In addition to same-level small group instruction, pull heterogeneous groups of kids who need to work on the same strategy or skill. Everyone gets appropriately targeted instruction, and less proficient readers and writers get extra modeling and motivation working alongside advanced peers. This post from Third Grade Doodles offers some specific guidance to get you started.

15. Teach kids what’s expected in high stakes situations.

Source: The Owl Teacher

While ideally you don’t spend too much of your instructional time teaching to the test, all kids deserve to know exactly what they’ll need to do to be successful. The Owl Teacher gives examples of essential strategies, routines, and vocabulary for test taking, distilled down to one manageable anchor chart. Take a similar approach for interviews, oral presentations, performance reading, or key writing assignments. 

16. Read aloud to kids of all ages.

Educator and actress Rebecca Bellingham shares a powerful anecdote about a student who credited her read aloud of Charlotte’s Web as enabling him to “get inside a book” for the first time. Keep on reading aloud from Pre-K to high school to ensure all kids get equitable access to book content and positive reading experiences.

17. Insist on diverse books.

The movement towards making availability of diverse books the norm has gained momentum, but ensuring all children can recognize themselves in books should still be top of mind. Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,   urges teachers to “diversify your diverse books.” Seek out books that present multiple or underrepresented perspectives, ones that depict diverse characters having everyday experiences, and #OwnVoices books.

18. Introduce students to books.

Not all kids will find the books they need to read on their own. Host a book tasting tailored to your students’ reading needs and interests. Or, pick a strategy from educator Susan Barber’s list of ideas for matching books to students , such as “book speed dating,” book talks by special guest, or a book recommendation hashtag for your class.

19. Get creative to increase text access.

Source: The Coastal Journal

To boost access to text, take a look at where in your building students are spending wait time. Strategically fill those locations with books and magazines to boost students’ text access. What about the school office, lobby, or arrival and dismissal areas? Consider a Books on the Bus program for students with long rides to and from school.

20. Build partnerships to get books into students’ homes.

The statistics about book access outside of school are grim; research suggests 61% of low-income children have no age-appropriate books at home. Partner with organizations committed to eliminating book deserts to ensure all children can extend their literacy learning at home.

Which strategies have you used to bring more equity to your literacy instruction? Share your thoughts in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, 50 ways schools can support early literacy.

20 Ways to Bring More Equity to Your Literacy Instruction