Comprehensive Literacy Instruction: Meeting the Instructional Needs of ALL Students in our Classrooms

Many of the schools that I work with have been consistently implementing good, comprehensive literacy instruction for some time - and as a result there are a greater number of conventional readers and writers in our schools. This has led to an increased need for differentiation in our classrooms, and for more teachers to provide instruction that meets the needs of both emergent and conventional readers and writers every day.  To make sure that each student gets the right literacy instruction for their needs, we need to ensure we are differentiating our instruction. I'm writing this blog post as a resource for some of the teachers I work with to refer to - and hope it is helpful for others too.

How do I know what level a student needs?

It would be great if we had access to assessment information for every student we work with to determine this question.  However, we also know that sometimes it can take a while to get this information - or that some students don't do as well in formal assessment as we know they can do in real life tasks.  So - if you don't have access to this assessment information or if you're still working on assessment or what to do with your assessment data, Erickson & Koppenhaver (2013) have a set of questions that we can use to help us determine whether a student is ready for conventional instruction or not.   These are shown in the diagram below and should help you determine what each student needs:

Erickson & Koppenhaver, 2013

(Answering yes to all of these questions doesn't mean that a student is conventional - but it does mean that they are ready to move to the conventional set of interventions.)

What elements of Comprehensive Literacy Instruction should I provide?

For every emergent student, we want to work on the emergent literacy skills that we know will lead to later literacy success. For every conventional student, we want to look at the set of interventions that will help them to read silently with comprehension one grade level higher (and that's a quote from Erickson and Koppenhaver, pretty much every time I've heard them since 2000) .

Students who are emergent readers and writers need the following set of interventions:

We also need to make sure that every individual with complex communication needs has access to a robust AAC system - and that those around them are supporting receptive and expressive language development with that system.  Literacy and language development do not happen in a vacuum, instead they feed into each other and support each other's development. So, we have to make sure that language is being addressed for literacy to continue to develop.

Students who are conventional readers and writers need the following set of interventions:

Once again, for every individual with complex communication needs it is really important to ensure that they continue to have access to a robust AAC system.

And if you have both emergent and conventional students in your classroom you need to make sure that you are addressing both emergent and conventional literacy so that every student continues to move further along their literacy journey.

(And as a further note, I would like to say that both shared reading and shared writing have been shown to be valuable for early conventional readers and writers - so where possible it's great to have your early conventional students still participate in these.)

How do I make sure I teach for every student?

I think the most obvious way to do this is to make sure that this is covered in your planning.  Many of the teachers I work with are in self-contained classrooms and do have both conventional and emergent students.

Here is a planning sheet that I think is the bare minimum for making sure that the needs of both emergent and conventional students is met.  Anyone is welcome to do more planning than this - but this is the minimum that I believe we can do to make sure we are differentiating and providing comprehensive literacy instruction.  You can right click on the image below to download this as a Word document.Balanced Literacy Planning Sheet

Where can I get further information?

If you are unsure what any of the above areas of literacy instruction involve, the Dynamic Learning Maps self-directed learning modules are fabulous!  The literacy units have been written by staff at the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies and cover the different components of comprehensive literacy instruction for both emergent and conventional students.  If you want further information in one area you can watch the relevant webinar.  These are an incredible resource.

Additionally, I made up some sheets earlier this year to help teachers make sure that within each individual area, they were including the instruction that all students need.  So far I have covered writing, self-selected reading, shared reading and working with letters, sounds and words.

And if you are working with conventional students, don't forget David Koppenhaver and Karen Erickson's fabulous book Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four Blocks Way (2007)

I hope this information is helpful 🙂


Erickson, K. & Koppenhaver, D. (2013, June) Summer Literacy Camp, Camp Courage, MN.



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