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Whole Child Literacy ...An Interview with Heather Wiederstein

Categories: Curriculum & Access, Early Literacy, Education & Teaching, Student Centric Learning, Teacher Best Practices

A former teacher, Heather Wiederstein has spent years designing teaching materials to support our youngest and most vulnerable students. Today, she serves as Vice-President of Solutions Development for Learning Ally, a national education technology nonprofit dedicated to helping struggling learners with reading deficits succeed. Heather's mission to help students who are at-risk read proficiently has led her to work on Learning Ally’s unique approach, Whole Child Literacy™.

Embracing Whole Child Literacy 

Whole Child Literacy builds on “whole child” pedagogy and encompasses a variety of factors that impact a child’s ability to learn to read proficiently, including: 

  • reading strategies and skills, 
  • a child’s own executive functioning, and 
  • the environments, in school and out, in which a child develops. 

Heather says, "Whole Child Literacy takes into account not just the discrete skills that a child needs in order to read, but all the things that impact that child’s learning and development to even allow them to acquire those skills and ability to read. We think about things such as how the environment is impacting them. Have they experienced any ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] or trauma? We take into consideration all of the elements that really create the child as a learner in order to help that child learn to read.”

Early childhood has long recognized that skills, especially in young children, do not develop in a vacuum. “During those years, especially when we are learning foundational skills, our students’ tiny brains are learning all kinds of information at the same time,” says Heather. "The teacher plays an outsized role in facilitating that broad learning -- whether particular academic skills, self-regulation, or resilience. I think a teacher being knowledgeable and just having that awareness of all parts of that child as a learner is critical for their long-term success. Most teachers know that intrinsically, and we are just trying to support that knowledge.”

Building a Complete Picture of a Child as a Learner

An educator embracing Whole Child Literacy builds a complete picture of the child as a learner. “Sure, I know what graphemes this child can read and I know that child’s fluency level. And how are the executive functioning skills for this child?” Heather asks. “How might I build a relationship with this child that becomes protective in his or her own environment? What are some strategies that I can apply to the whole class that not only help manage my class and help me teach my lesson effectively, but also build a community of safety and support that truly enables learning for each child?”

Heather has drawn inspiration from the children she taught for years before moving into educational technology. “It’s the teacher in me. I’m always thinking about those children who sat in my classroom, like Jeremiah, who hated to read; Cara, who loved to read, and Gary, who was extremely gifted, but did not like to read. How could I reach each of them as their educator and find ways to meet them where they were in their learning process. I built a pedagogical point of view from my experiences as an educator, and it is my greatest joy to bring them into the Learning Ally organization.”

Equipping Educators with the Right Tools and Resources

At Learning Ally, Heather and her colleagues are infusing Whole Child Literacy into all of their Solutions development endeavors. Their goal is to equip educators with tools and services to put Whole Child Literacy into action, helping to reduce the large number of students reading below proficiency. “It’s about an educator being able to have a picture of all the sources of data,” Heather explains. “Whole Child Literacy may sound like something new and different, but at its core, I believe teachers have been doing it for years. As teachers, we observe things all day. We assess things informally. All these things that we know about -- how children learn--how we can bring their needs to the forefront -- how we can provide strategies to incorporate into our daily best practices. Having a place where we can pull that all together, culling the resources and strategies that we can tie to that picture of each child, that’s my vision for Whole Child Literacy in today's classrooms.”

Learn more about Learning Ally's Whole Child Literacy