Developing Comprehensive Literacy Systems Based on a Common Vision and a Shared Tool

By Gay Su Pinnell

Policy makers and educators are always looking for ways to improve literacy achievement.  Over the years, they have come to understand that no one “program” can guarantee the results they want.  So, they search for a combination of programs to create a “comprehensive approach,”   for example, one for early education, one for special education, one for English language learners, and so on. But a comprehensive approach means much more than “something for everyone.”  In fact, building a comprehensive literacy system simply by combining programs—whether home grown or commercial products–is a bit like asking a group of 20 to build a sailboat.  Without communicating with each other, some make the hull, some the mast, some the sails, some the rigging, some the auxiliary motor, and some the hardware.  Oh, and another group entirely calculates the wind and surf the boat will encounter.   None of us would want to go out in open water in that craft even on a good weather day.  A sailboat must be designed so that the parts work together in harmony, and only then can it deliver sailors safely to their destination.

Building a comprehensive system simply by cobbling together programs in a thoughtless way confuses students and may even undermine literacy progress. The experiences provided for struggling students may fight against each other because they are based on conflicting ideas.  There is no core vision or internal harmony.

In Literacy Collaborative, a comprehensive design for literacy curriculum means that interrelated systems work together in a systemic way that delivers a coherent message to students and unites teachers in a common vision.  Some key concepts are foundational to a comprehensive design:

  • It is comprehensive, or extensive and large in scope or concept.  All educators participate and communicate extensively with each other.
  • It is coherent, which means “sticking together” or consistent.  It makes sense.  All educators share a common vision, a body of knowledge about how children become literate with varying but compatible practices.
  • It is shared by the community of the school.  Educators have common interests and goals; they share responsibility across grades and roles for helping all students reach the goals.

It is easy to describe what a comprehensive approach should be, but it is a complex and difficult goal to achieve.  For us, a coherent system rests on the body of knowledge we hold and what we hold as evidence of literacy learning.  These understandings are internal to us as educators, and they are developed over time.  The power of a comprehensive approach is that we help each other through interacting around our practice.  In the process, we build common understandings.  Our practice may vary by the age and abilities of the students we teach, but we are all working to help students move in their individual ways toward the same goals.

The Continuum of Literacy Learning (Fountas & Pinnell) was created to assist administrators and teachers in their challenging task.  It acts as a support and a guide for talking and thinking about teaching and learning.   Although it is consistent with and considerably more descriptive and detailed than state and national standards for literacy achievement, the continuum is not applied as a set of standards for “passing” or “failing.”   Neither is it a “script” for instruction.  A set of practices are embraced by Literacy Collaborative,  and the frameworks  for instructional settings like guided reading, interactive read aloud, or writing workshop, can be acquired.  However, it is the decisions teachers make both in planning and moment to moment as they teach that is the real power behind learning.

The continuum is a detailed description of the characteristics of texts that students will encounter and need to process in different ways over time.  It is also a detailed description of the understandings and behaviors that we want to see students develop across time as readers and writers.  It is an evidence document that we can use as a tool to guide and assess our teaching.  The continuum is used as a support for observation as well as for discussion among colleagues.    The chart below shows the professionals who use the continuum.

Role Use of The Continuum of Literacy Learning
Classroom Teacher Classroom teachers use the continuum to guide instructional planning and interactions.

  • To select texts for various purposes (interactive read aloud, guided reading, and as mentor texts for writers’ workshop).
  • To assess student learning.
  • To assess the effectiveness of teaching.
Intervention Teachers

And Special Education Teachers

Intervention teachers and special education teachers use the continuum to guide instructional planning and interactions.

  • To assess the gap that students need to bridge to catch up to grade level expectations.
  • To select texts that have the highest potential for accelerated progress.
  • To assess students’ reading progress.
  • To assess the effectiveness of teaching.
Literacy Coach Literacy coaches use the continuum to support teachers in:

  • Assessing students’ current reading and writing abilities.
  • Identifying goals for students in reading and writing.
  • Making decisions about text selection and other instructional decisions.
  • Assessing the impact of their teaching.
Librarian Librarians use the continuum to:

  • Select a range of texts on interesting topics.
  • Recommend read aloud books to teachers.
  • Help teachers build text sets for connected learning.
  • Assist teachers in finding books at appropriate levels for students.
  • Helping students find books (without having them choose by level).
Principal and Leadership Team The Leadership team consists of a group brought together by the principal to guide the implementation of a comprehensive effort.  The principal and leadership team  use the continuum to:

  • Review the progress of individual students, both in classrooms, in intervention, and in special education.
  • Assess the progress of each cohort of students.
  • Identify areas of weakness in instruction.
  • Plan for professional development for teachers.



The Continuum of Literacy Learning is the center of our work in Literacy Collaborative, but this document in itself is not the most important thing. The continuum is a support for thinking and talking.  Here’s the ultimate goal:  once you have used the continuum with many students over time, the text characteristics, behaviors, and understandings will be an internalized body of knowledge.  And, there may be development and change over time as research uncovers more about the complex processes of learning to read and write.

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