4 Questions to Ensure School-Wide Authentic Literacy

A school leader gains trust when he or she is “knowledgeable about current curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices.”[1] A school’s curriculum is much more than information dispensed to students by teachers. The curriculum includes the what, how and why of instruction. According to Schmoker, the three most significant elements of curriculum are (1) What we teach, (2) How we teach, and (3) Authentic Literacy. “These three elements, if even reasonably well-executed, would have more impact than all other initiatives combined.”[2] In fact, Schmoker argues there is no point investing in any new program, technology, or school initiative until these three elements are thoroughly in place and supported.

In his identification of Authentic Literacy among the three essential elements, Schmoker is referring to purposeful, intentional efforts to develop high levels of student achievement in reading, writing, and speaking about their learning. Thus, the most effective instructional practices include students reading about a subject, writing about it and speaking competently and independently about it. At each step, the learning deepens, until the student demonstrates mastery and ownership of the knowledge, at which point they can confidently express it to others. Additionally, educational research shows these key elements of Authentic Literacy are best supported through learning immersed in individualized and timely feedback.[3] Kevin Bartlett, argues, “Near immediate and individualized feedback is the number one factor for learning.”[4] He calls this Feedback for Learning.

In most schools, the three fundamentals of Authentic Literacy are embraced and utilized thoroughly in language departments (e.g. English, Spanish, French, etc.) due to the nature of the disciplines. However, trusted school leaders also assess how and if these essentials are present and implemented in non-language courses. The following questions address that assessment:

  1. Do all classes have an element of required subject-related reading in their curriculum; including performance-based classes such as Physical Education and Music?

  2. Do all classes make use of a written assessment of subject understanding? If so, are the written assessments and the associated feedback provided with the same level of competency and expectation offered in a language course?

  3. Do all classes include some type of verbal presentation by the student related to the course subject matter?

  4. Is regular and effective (i.e. individualized and immediate) feedback provided to each student within a time-frame that makes a difference? Note that feedback is not referring to grades – but providing students informed and personalized reflection on their efforts so they close the gap between their current level of understanding and course-level expectations.

Trusted school leaders embrace a commitment to Authentic Literacy and Feedback for Learning, which makes a significant impact throughout curriculum, means of instruction, and forms of assessment. When Authentic Literacy is achieved and effective and consistent Feedback for Learning is utilized in all disciplines, students deepen their level of learning through the following means:

  • Gaining a broader knowledge of each subject area
  • Internalizing information to a more cognitive and coherent degree
  • Reflecting and making personal applications, resulting in lasting and enduring comprehension
  • Maturing through the process of assessment / feedback / re-assessment

Schools successful in establishing Authentic Literacy, supported by Feedback for Learning in every department, measure and substantiate student-learning improvements through a wide variety of assessments. These can include data-driven student improvement goals, external assessments (e.g. NWEA’s M.A.P., Scholastic’s SRI and SMI, etc.), classroom work results, the teacher’s grade book, and classroom observations.

©2017 Toby A. Travis


[1] Marzano et. al., School Leadership That Works, 720-721, Kindle.

[2] Mike Schmoker, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011), 97-98; 118. Kindle.

[3] James and Chen-Lin Kulik, “Timing of Feedback and Verbal Learning,” Review of Educational Research 58, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 79-97.  John Hattie and Hellen Timperley, “The Power of Feedback,” Review of Educational Research 77, no. 1 (March 2007): 81-112.  Valerie J. Schute, “Focus on Formative Feedback,” Review of Educational Research 78, no. 1 (March 2008): 153-189.

[4] Quoted from a presentation Bartlett delivered at The Principals Training Center in Miami, FL in July, 2011.


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