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LitTips: 12 Practical Tips to Improve Literacy!

Literacy is Lorie Schaefer's number-one goal. To that end, Schaefer -- a reading specialist and confessed "idea hamster" -- is constantly looking for ways to put ideas in front of the teachers she works with. Among the tools she uses is a weekly literacy tip, published in her principal's school bulletin. Included: A dozen Schaefer "LitTips!"

"Somebody called me an 'idea hamster' yesterday," said Lorie Schaefer. The comment caused Schaefer to pause. Was that a compliment or not? she wondered.

We'll give Schaefer the benefit of the doubt. The comment must have been a compliment, because the ideas that Schaefer is "hamstering" are aimed at improving student literacy!

As literacy coordinator at Al Seeliger Elementary School in Carson City, Nevada, Schaefer is always searching for ways to incorporate literacy into her teachers' day-to-day school routines. Among the tools she uses to accomplish that are what she calls "LitTips."

You've heard of "60- second fairy tales"? Then you might think of LitTips as "16-second teacher in-services." Or, as Schaefer calls them, "painless professional development"!

So how would you know a LitTip if you walked into one?

LitTips take many forms, but they are easily recognizable as lessons in literacy.

  • A LitTip can be a pointer that students can use to improve their reading, writing, spelling, or listening skills.
  • It can be an ever-so-brief summary of some recent research that might interest teachers.
  • It can be a quick activity that busy teachers can work into their classroom lessons.
  • It can be a little snippet of philosophy that can refresh weary teachers.

In short, LitTips are little hints served up to remind teachers that literacy is goal number one.


Schaefer has graciously offered to share with Education World's readers a dozen LitTips from her bag of tricks and tips.

Proofreading is in the CUPS. When students are ready to proofread a piece of writing, have them write the word CUPS in large letters at the top of the page. The C reminds them to check for Capital letters. When they've done that, they cross out the C. Next they check for Understanding and cross out the U. They continue proofreading, checking for Punctuation (P) and Spelling (S) in the same way. Reading for only one thing at a time is very accurate. Crossing out CUPS shows you they have done proofreading on their own.

Make time to read aloud. Reading aloud "exposes children to a positive reading role model, new information, the pleasures of reading, rich vocabulary, good grammar, a broader variety of books than they'd choose on their own, richly textured lives outside their own experience, the English language spoken in a manner distinctly different from that in television sitcoms or on MTV. At the same time the child's imagination is stimulated, attention span stretched, listening comprehension improved, emotional development nurtured, the reading-writing connection established, and, where they exist, negative attitudes reshaped to positive. Outside of all that, reading aloud doesn't do much." (Source: Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook)

Cook up a "story pie." This works well for story maps or sequencing. Cut a large circle of butcher paper into wedge-shaped slices four, five, six, depending on your purpose. Give each member of the group one slice with an assignment to write and illustrate their "piece" of the story (the setting, the characters, the problem, etc.). As students retell their parts, reassemble the pie. Tape the pie together and display it.

I can read with my eyes shut! Do some of your kids read the same story so many times that they have it memorized? Sometimes it's hard to tell if they can really read or not. Try having them read a page or a paragraph backward to check. Kids really have to focus on the individual words. This technique is especially good for those kids who often omit or insert words. And most kids think it's really funny to read backward because it makes no sense at all.

Advice from a pro might help your students with revisions. "I write every paragraph four times," author Margery Allingham reported. "Once to get my meaning down, once to put in anything I have left out, once to take out anything that seems unnecessary, and once to make the whole thing sound as if I have only just thought of it." (Source: Judith Appelbaum, How to Get Happily Published)

Try the "right writing notebook." Give students a spiral notebook, and ask them to write on only the pages on the right-hand side of the open notebook. Since they never write on the left-hand side of the notebook (which are the backs of pages), the students can illustrate on that side. The neatest thing about this is that when students sit in the "author's chair," they fold back their notebooks so that the illustrations are facing their classmates in the audience and the writing is facing them as they read. Kids who are shy about getting up in front of classmates don't feel so self-conscious because they know everyone's eyes are on their illustrations rather than on them as they read. (Source: Patricia Cunningham, Wake Forest University)

"Outlaw words" are booked into jail. What do you do with words that aren't spelled or read according to "the rules"? Put those outlaws in "word jail," a chart with bars made to look like a jail cell. Students can refer to the chart when they come to one of those words.

It's hunting season! After you've introduced and practiced a phonics or spelling pattern, send the kids off on a word hunt through a familiar book or story to find more words that include the pattern. Have them write the words in their word study notebooks, on a sheet of paper, or on a class chart. Share the words with the group and decide whether they really fit the pattern or not. And you know what to do with the outlaws --just throw them into word jail!

Here's a theory to think about. "The goal is a reader or writer who is actively working. The work should not be too hard. In fact, when it is not too hard, the reader can proceed more efficiently and learn more about the process. When texts or tasks are too hard, the child will be less active and require more support from the teacher, thus taking control away from the child." (Source: Billie J. Askew and Irene Fountas, The Reading Teacher, October 1998)

Look at the writing process in another way. The following comes from Mary Bowman-Kuhm, a writer and an educator. She calls these the 6 C's of writing:

  1. Collect. Collect ideas and information.
  2. Create. Compose the paper.
  3. Cool it. Let the paper sit awhile. (Kids like this idea!)
  4. Catch the bugs in content. Find and correct problems with what you said.
  5. Catch the bugs in conventions. Find and correct problems with how you said it.
  6. Complete the package. Make the paper reader-ready.

It's content versus pattern spelling. In attempting to focus on meaningful word study, some teachers use only content-related words for spelling without consideration of their developmental appropriateness. For example, young students can learn to read words such as ocean and plankton though their ability to remember the spelling of those words is still very limited. If theme is the sole criterion for selecting words, then students are reduced to learning how to spell one word at a time, with little opportunity to discover and explore the spelling patterns that apply to many words.

Have you been paying attention? Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom, some third graders were spelling like second graders. Some third-grade students were divided into two groups. One group was instructed with second-grade materials and words throughout the year. The other used third-grade words that year. At the end of the year, which group do you think were the better spellers? And do you know why? (The "answer" appeared the following week: The third graders who spelled like second graders and were instructed like second graders actually were the better spellers by the end of third grade. The words and spelling rules they learned were "just right" for them. They were being instructed in what Lev Vygotsky calls the "zone of proximal development.")

About the Author

Lorie Schaefer is a literacy coordinator at Seeliger Elementary School in Carson City, Nevada. She works closely with her school's teachers and reading specialist Nance Greenstein to improve student literacy --which is goal number one in the master plan for Carson City's schools. As part of her responsibility, Schaefer teaches remedial reading to third and fourth graders on a daily basis. Prior to her current appointment, Schaefer was a reading specialist (since 1992) and a classroom teacher in grades 1 and 3. "When I interviewed for my first teaching job, they asked me why I thought I'd make a good teacher," recalled Schaefer. "I told them I was a good thief. I stole ideas from everyone and adapted them to my needs."


Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2004 Education World

Updated 09/09/2008