Perspectives on Whole Child Literacy

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A Principal’s Approach to Building a Culture of Readers

Categories: Education & Teaching, Educators, Reading Strategies for K-12, Teacher Best Practices

Vanessa in her school hallway Principal Vanessa Bilello of the Hopkins Elementary School in Hopkinton, Massachusetts is on a quest. She wants all 580 students in her building to excel at reading. Just like the athletes who queue up to run the Boston Marathon each year on her track and fields, Ms. Bilello believes, “Reading is a marathon. It takes practice, motivation and persistence.”

Building a culture of readers isn’t easy, but Bilello and staff are resilient. Like many educators, they face the challenge of students with diverse needs and learning styles. Some students are over-achievers; others are not. Reading comes easy for some, and almost impossible for others. 

What seems like a daunting mission of “literacy for all,” this administrator addresses with a multi-structural language approach layered with access to curriculum with a reading accommodation when needed. “Getting all kids to enjoy reading takes effort,” says Bilello. “We’re working to ensure that students are equipped to study on grade-level, feel more socially connected, and prepared for a promising future.” 

Multi-Faceted Reading Approach

Hopkins’ fourth and fifth grade teachers combine SEL (social and emotional learning) with explicit literacy instruction. They use reading strategies to develop students’ decoding and encoding skills, improve fluency, reinforce comprehension and expose students to complex materials as part of a Readers’ Workshop model. This approach may include: 

  • Guided reading with the Fountas and Pinnell system, based on benchmark assessments.

  • Independent reading akin to personal interests.

  • Reading at home.

  • Heterogeneous book groups, according to student interests.

  • Peer to peer reading. 

  • Sequential intervention using Orton-Gillingham, Wilson System, Project Read, and Just Words.

  • Accessible content to level the learning field so students can study grade-level curriculum through Learning Ally.

Early Identification of Reading Deficits

Students have abundant opportunities to read stories based on their interests and a variety of genres, authors, and popular titles. Bilello believes that integrating reading time throughout the school day is critical for students whose comprehension skills are stronger than their decoding skills. “If students have not mastered fundamental reading skills by 4th or 5th grade, they can feel failure and frustration. We are not doing our job to meet their needs if we don’t provide adequate access to high quality, diverse titles of texts.” 

For students who are dyslexic or have reading deficits, Hopkins turns to The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution -- a quality reading accommodation and digital accessible library. Bilello says, “Listening is reading. When children show signs of struggle, this is the time to implement or intensify reading instruction. Audiobooks are a useful supplement while students work with their teachers to improve their decoding and fluency skills.” She also adds, “Children love to hear stories read aloud. Human narration builds their vocabulary and introduces new patterns of words, not to mention the sheer enjoyment of reading."

Reading while listening to text is a research-proven way to increase fluency and overall reading skills. For older students with learning disabilities, teachers use the audiobook solution to expose students to age-appropriate text, to build background knowledge, to encourage independent reading and social connections; and to introduce new genres and authors. 

Leveled Readers 

On the topic of 'leveled' readers, Bilello says, “We know that the biggest indicators of children reading well is practice. Audiobooks give students the ability to comprehend information at their intellectual level.” 

She is not a proponent of only giving students leveled books. “Many educators and parents believe a child can only do “P” books, but we don’t believe in limiting any child. This is the time to broaden their repertoire and to help them feel confident.”   

CARES Program – (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, Self-Control)

The theme of inclusion and diverse learning styles is carried through Hopkins ‘Understanding Our Difference Program.’ The year-long curriculum immerses students and staff to spend time learning about learning differences and what it’s like to be dyslexic, autistic or visually impaired. To reinforce the values of cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy and self-control, Bilello developed a positive behavior recognition system called CARES, based on the Responsive Classroom model language. Students can earn CARES cards for demonstrating good values, distributed by students and staff to deserving students. Students whose card is selected in monthly drawings earn their choice of a paperback book. 

For thinking outside the box and promoting a culture of readers where every student has what they need for academic success, Vanessa Bilello is the recipient of the 2019 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award. This award honors U.S. educators who display exemplary leadership to ensure more students with reading deficits reach their full intellectual potential. Winners receive a monetary award for themselves and their school. It is not surprising that Ms. Bilello will use her award to strengthen her mission so that literacy for all stretches far beyond the classroom. 

If you know an educator, administrator or school that is making a difference for students with reading deficits, Learning Ally’s nomination process is now open for the 2020 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award.

For more information on Learning Ally, or to request a demo, visit or call 800-221-1098.

About Learning Ally                                                    

Learning Ally is a leading education solutions organization committed to transforming the lives of struggling learners. The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is a proven reading accommodation composed of human-read audiobooks, student-centric features and a suite of teacher resources. Used in more than 17,500 schools, this essential solution empowers students with reading deficits to become engaged learners and reach their academic potential.


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