The Power of Classroom Climate In Literacy Instruction

As a Wolfpack Works literacy coach, I am continuously reflecting upon how I can partner with teachers to enhance their literacy practices in ways that maximize students’  learning and joy. So often, I think about how the classroom feels and the factors that are either promoting joy and engagement, or unintentionally diminishing student efficacy and their sense of belonging.  I organize these factors into three categories: teacher language, instructional materials, and opportunity.

Teacher Language:  I listen closely to the language that teachers use when interacting with students through the lens of empowerment and positivity.  I think about Peter Johnston’s work (e.g., Johnston, 2003) as I notice how teachers use language to build students’ identities and agency relative to their literacy learning. For example, teachers may ask their students:

  • “What are you working on as a writer today?”
  • “How were you able to figure that tricky part out in your reading?”
  • “How will you apply that new learning in your own writing?”  

Noticing and naming specific behaviors that students demonstrate set a tone of empowerment and joyful literacy learning. It feels good to be in these classrooms!

Instructional Materials:  Students need to feel a sense of ownership in their classroom, and classroom materials can either promote or diminish this sense of belonging.  First, I notice the books in the classroom library and who these books represent. Can all students see themselves in these books, in terms of race, gender, family, and community?  Do the books reflect students’ interests and cultures? Do these books unintentionally perpetuate stereotypes or misrepresent certain populations? Conversely, are there books that allow students to step into the lives of a different community or character, building empathy and compassion for those different from ourselves?  

Next, I notice the work students are doing.  Are students using writing to communicate their ideas in an authentic way?  Are multiple perspectives honored when reflecting on text, acknowledging that what students bring to the text will vary?  Is student work displayed and shared for the purpose of celebration and learning from each other? I look closely at assignments to determine if they serve the purpose of quick data collection and quantifying knowledge or if they simply provide another measure to document that the same students remain below benchmark expectations.  Are anchor charts co-created with students to reflect what is taught and serve as visual reminders and scaffolds for future learning? How do instructional materials allow all children to feel empowered and celebrated?

Opportunity:  When looking through the lens of opportunity, I often think about the classroom in terms of physical layout and class schedule.   Where students sit can greatly impact their access to instructional opportunities. Are student partnerships (e.g., “talking partners” or “writing buddies”) clearly posted and are students positioned and expected to work collaboratively?   I notice if some students are always in the back of the room or in the corner (perhaps to receive extra support but unintentionally depriving them from accessing the taught curriculum). I pay attention to who is called on and who is not. Do all students go to specials or lunch and recess, or are these times of the day when some students are singled out for behavior or academic interventions, depriving them the opportunity to interact in meaningful ways with their peers?  So often good intentions (with regards to extra support or reading interventions) diminish students’ opportunities to learn with their peers and feel the sense of belonging they need.

The inclusivity and climate of our classrooms can be the determining factor in student learning.  Teachers set this tone both with their language and the resources they choose to use. Classrooms that honor authentic student work in a variety of contexts build student efficacy and joyfulness. Deliberately choosing texts that reflect the lives and aspirations of our students sends the important message that they belong.  Above all, a happy and authentically productive classroom gives all students the agency and resilience to take the everyday risks inherent in early literacy learning.


Dara Butler

Lead Literacy Coach

Wolfpack WORKS


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