Every child is different. This idea doesn’t change when we talk about each child’s unique path to literacy. Listen in as literacy leaders Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell talk about The Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum—An educator’s tool that defines readers’ behaviors and outlines the next steps to take toward reading proficiency.
The Literacy Continuum is a lighthouse—guiding educators from observation to decision making during reading and writing instruction. In this special podcast conversation, Irene and Gay share their story of The Literacy Continuum and how it evolved into the indispensable tool educators know and use today.
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Irene Fountas: To this date, people are fascinated by how children, and I'll use Marie Clay's phrase, "Take different paths to common outcomes." And that was a big reckoning in the literacy field because it meant that children would not develop in one way and programs were not going to match the children, but rather teachers were going to need to become better observers of children so that they could infer the in the head systems and thus build on that over time as every child became proficient in their own way.
And we are big advocates of teachers learning how to be astute observers and how to be able to use their observations to inform their teaching decisions. I think that Gay and I, over time in our publications, have tried to write more and more that would help teachers have this way of thinking about teaching and learning; meaning, moving from observation to decision-making, always with the lens of what would proficient reading look like at this point in time, and teaching towards that.
And that's really what The Literacy Continuum is. We see it almost as a lighthouse, meaning we help teachers understand that they need to observe children's strengths and build on them, teaching towards the behaviors and understandings that are so precisely described in The Literacy Continuum over time, not only by levels A to Z for Guided Reading. But we have also described thinking within, beyond, and about the text for a variety of instructional contexts such as interactive read aloud in book discussion, shared reading, so that teachers will be able to see how they can observe the way children think and work on text in a variety of contexts. And that informs their understanding of development both when children are developing well and when children are going off track as what the phrase that Marie Clay would use.
Brett: When you first published Guided Reading in 1996, there was just one continua at that time and now we have eight continua of for all of the Continuum. How did it grow from one continua in 1996 in Guided Reading to what we now know was The Continuum with eight continua within it? How did that evolve? How did it grow?
Irene Fountas: Talk about those bullets. Remember it had the bullets in the chapter where we described the gradient and we have level A and B and we had a few bullets about what were important behaviors and then B and then C? And remember how people kept saying to us, "Those bullets are so helpful to us."?
Gay Su Pinnell: And they were just a few.
Irene Fountas: And they were just a few for each level. Those were the first bullets of The Literacy Continuum. Weren't they? We started with those.
Gay Su Pinnell: They were and we got... Well, everything we have done I think has come out of our interactions with teachers around our current work, what they're finding in it, what they're missing, what they want more of, what they need. And that is certainly classic example because time after time they would say, "These bullets are helping me so much. They're helping guide by observation. I can see evidence of learning because I have these very descriptive phrases in the head."
And that of course grew out of this, sitting down with the books every night and saying, "What will it take to read these books that are the same level of challenge?" And so we said, "Well, maybe we should be more specific because there's certainly more to say." And so the A to Z Continuum started to grow, and we then devised category system for thinking about systems of strategic actions, the 12 that go from within the text to beyond the text to about the text and rising in complexity.
And we worked on that and then we said, "We're not leaving out the wonderful, engaging literature quality texts. We're reading those aloud every day and we really ought to group those in a much more organic way." For example, what's appropriate to read to a class of first graders would not be for a group of third graders, typically, or fifth. And so we started grouping those texts loosely as being more developmentally appropriate because the children may not be able to read the books, but they can think and talk and discuss and enjoy language in those books.
So we're doing that and we thought, "We could do some bullets of thinking within, beyond and about the text for every grade level. What does it take to listen to this book and talk about it and understand it and write about it and draw about it?" And then we just moved from there into one of our favorite areas, which is shared reading. We've always thought shared reading was very important, but it's achieved much more important recently because it leads guided reading. What you can do with the support of the group is more than you can do all by yourself.
The unison reading, the sharing it, moves in ahead of guided and Independent Reading, so that we have a kind of a schema there, where the highest level of support is shared is interactive read aloud so that the children listen with all their brains and their hearts and just enjoy the book and talk about it. Guided reading the teachers providing a pretty strong scaffold and explicit instruction in the small group and then the child reads it individually, still with the teacher right there. In independent reading, just a few conferences and what the child can do on his own at every grade level.
Those are the kind of the pillars of the reading experience in school, and it's our belief they need every one of them. Plus, a little wonderful thing called Book Club where they read independently and discuss a book as a group, and that's a highly enjoyable and wonderful experience in not just in literary ways but in social ways and learning to work together.
We created the Phonics Continuum that was in the larger Literacy Continuum and after that came, with some help from some very good friends at Heinemann, something we call The Comprehensive Phonics Continuum, which is everything you ever wanted to know about English language, letters, sounds, words and how they work. The parts of words, the affixes, the suffixes and so on, and word roots.
Irene Fountas: Gay referred to the importance of teachers understanding language and in particular the alphabetic system and The Comprehensive Phonics Spelling and Word Study Guide is really the body of knowledge that teachers need to understand the principles of how language and words work. And we find that not all teachers have strong understanding of the alphabetic system, and it's very difficult to teach children how to use letter sound relationships, how to use word parts if they don't understand themselves the logic in the alphabetic system.
So, we believe that tool is an essential one. And of course the Continuum of Literacy Learning lays out the behaviors and understandings to notice teach for and support across grade levels, so teachers can actually see what that development looks like over time. Again, because that's just a principle of effective teaching, looking at what they already know and building on that.
Gay Su Pinnell: We just felt we needed a continuum that described what we would see happening and want to see happening and teach for in every one of these curricular areas. And then we kind of noticed that we needed to say something about oral language development and technical, visual education and of course, writing. Writing about reading and the writing process and seeing yourself as a writer, becoming a writer.
These writing and reading are reciprocal, complimentary processes. It's all part of literacy. And what we hope is for students in our schools is this becomes seamless. They're authors, they're readers, they're writers, they're noticers, they're talkers, they're discussers, and it all fits together in a very coherent and meaningful way for them. And we needed all of those continua to support teachers because they're looking for different evidence in different contexts.
Irene Fountas: I think that we have all come to value the importance of language as thinking. When children talk, they're sharing their thinking. When they write about reading, they're writing about their thinking. When they engage in book club conversations, they're sharing their thinking, they're gaining other perspectives. They're learning how to be critical and empathetic with others and learning about their world.
And I feel like in this age, in literacy, we see how much language and joy and engagement and agency is valued in classrooms where children aren't simply doing school, but they're growing up literate in the educational system. They're engaging with books, thinking about books, talking about books, writing about books, and also books open their world so that they see beyond their own classroom walls, beyond their community.
And of course, digital opportunities as well so that they can go beyond the walls of the classroom. But it just feels to me that learning is so much more alive in classrooms where books are the center and language is the medium, and children's own questions and interests are what the curriculum is for kids, instead of filling an empty vessel. Children who are discovering, wondering, learning, questioning. I think that's an entirely different stance in education and I hope it's here to stay.
I mean, we have a lot more to learn all of us about how to support our colleagues and ourselves in learning more about creating this culture of literacy and learning in classrooms. But I think it starts obviously with teachers' professional learning, but it's also fueled by how teachers see the way children engage so that they're not passive learners sitting in a desk. They're thinking and talking with each other and wondering and drawing and painting and sketching.
And schools can be, I'm not saying they all look like this. We are working towards that, but schools can be wonderful spaces for children and liberatory spaces, meaning children can learn how to think critically about how others are represented, how they see themselves in what they're learning in school. I mean, I think that the bar has been raised and it needs to continue to be raised. So that we have these not only exciting, but inclusive literacy communities in schools.