Author: Pat Pollack

Literacy-Rich Environments: Understanding the Many Important Layers

Throughout this school year, we have embarked on some very inspiring journeys with our partner school districts, with many exciting things happening within our Partners for Progress Professional Learning framework. As a theme, we are noticing that many educational leaders are interested in understanding how to establish a long-lasting framework that supports teaching, learning, and student improvement. In many cases, this requires truly looking inward, assessing current practices and resources, analyzing data, and sometimes, reimagining things from the beginning (which we find to be incredibly brave and inspiring!). 


We have led curriculum and professional learning practices audits alongside partners, and we are filled with optimism because of their willingness to do all of the aforementioned in order to set themselves and their students up for success. One area that we have emphasized, in particular, is creating a Literacy-Rich Environment. You’ve likely heard this phrase, but have you considered the many layers, or types of environments, that work together to achieve a literacy-rich environment?


In this blog, we provide these different types, corresponding themes, and some key questions or observations that we suggest considering.


The Physical Environment: Moving Beyond Design & Layout…Towards Agency & Independence 


Quite often, when we imagine surrounding our students with positive learning experiences, we may think of the physical environment first. School and classroom setup and “spaces” likely come to mind, like desk configuration, the teacher area, gathering areas, collaborative areas, the classroom library, and stations and/or centers.


We may also think about how resources are made available, like the accessibility of tools, paper, and pencils, technology access, word walls, anchor charts, and other tools that honor different learning styles or work habits. 


Beyond “spaces”, when considering a physical school or classroom environment, here are some key areas to think about: 


    • Agency: Does the environment promote student agency, independence, and curiosity?
    • Access: Do students have visual and physical access to learning supports that are relevant and reflect best practice?
    • Inclusion: Does the environment promote an inclusive, accepting culture in which students see themselves and their own experiences reflected, and can connect with others? (reflective of Windows and Mirrors) 
    • Responsiveness: Is the environment itself responsive to different student learning preferences/styles?
    • Presentation of Student Work: Is there student work present and visible, and is it notated with focused and student-friendly feedback?



The Student-Centered Learning Environment: Focusing on Community


Going a layer deeper, it’s important to look at how we can create student-centered learning environments (phrases like social-emotional or responsive learning environments may come to mind). There are several considerations in this category, so we will provide a few that stand out to us – many of which demonstrate a focus on creating an environment that supports ALL learners.


    • A strong sense of community and connection
    • Representation of cultures, family structures, and differently-abled students within the classroom library
    • Co-created anchor charts that encourage students to participate in their construction
    • A space where students feel comfortable asking questions and feel empowered to take risks
    • Opportunities for students to work at their own pace and explore their own interests, while also having VOICE and CHOICE with regard to things like books they want to read and topics they want to write about
    • Conversations occurring in a variety of settings (whole-class, turn-and-talk, share time, small group, partners)



The Literacy and Learning Environment: Supporting Feedback, Collaboration, & Celebration


When we consider an environment that is both student-centered and sets students up for success in developing as readers and writers, there are even more specific areas that are important to address. While, again, there are many considerations we recommend, here are a few to get you thinking:


    • Progressions of Learning: demonstrating exemplars of proficiency for students to access
    • Assessment Tools such as Checklists, Rubrics, Reflection forms, etc…
    • Lessons that are responsive, current and relevant: connecting the curriculum to students’ lives, state standards, and interests
    • Conversational moves are modeled, posted, and practiced by the teacher and students (stems to facilitate talk, lessons on listening to one another, speaking one at a time, looking at one another, responding to and building on each other’s ideas)
    • Students Recognized as Readers and Writers: It is important for students to be recognized by teachers as readers and writers, while being reminded that they are part of a reading and writing community. It is our responsibility as educators, to inspire young learners to see the readers, writers, and authors inside of them. In addition to referring to readers and writers, we may also help students discover their identities as readers and writers by allowing them to explore and share “I am a reader who….” or “I am a writer who….”, and even more impactful, is when teachers and school leaders also participate in this exercise and share their reading and writing identities as positive models. 
    • Mentor Texts are Used Often and are Made Visible and Accessible: Authentic literature is at the center of effective literacy instruction and serves as mentor models for students to learn from and enjoy. These diverse and engaging resources invite students to experience stories while also building their content knowledge and gaining the reading, writing, listening, and communication skills that they need to become literate individuals. Because mentor texts play such a critical role in student learning, they should be visible and accessible, always, for students to also explore and experience in their time outside of whole-class instruction or interactive read-alouds. 
    • Continuous Feedback and Opportunities for Reflection and Growth:  A strong literacy-learning environment includes opportunities for students to experience growth in ‘real time.’  This means that teachers will have protocols for giving feedback and will provide ample time for reflection.  One of the best ways to give feedback to students is through one-on-one conferring or providing time for peer conferences. 
    • Interactive/Shared Reading and Writing Experiences  There’s nothing like sharing the pen, or inviting students to share their oral reading experiences with the teacher.  Ensuring that your Literacy and Learning environment reflects collaboration and ‘sharing’ is a critical component of your instructional decision-making and will help to enhance a strong sense of community. 
    • Celebrations:  One of the best ways to enhance your learning community is through providing opportunities for celebrations. Hosting publishing parties, creating a protocol with an ‘author’s chair,’ gallery walks, and celebratory graffiti walls are all examples of celebrating the efforts of your students.



Our team of literacy experts has hosted many vibrant sessions on this topic. If you are interested in understanding the important layers of building a strong and lasting literacy-rich environment, please contact us by emailing

Inquiry-Based Learning & NCSS’ New Definition of ‘Social Studies’

Earlier in November, the National Council for Social Studies approved a new definition of social studies. You might be thinking, “Why is this important?” Well, it is for several reasons. 


Let’s start with the changes to the definition.


The prior definition, as interpreted by different states, led us to understand that social studies is intended to promote civic competence through the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities (NCSS, 2023). 


While the word “promote” was appropriate to use, the verbs have now changed in the newly revised version. Using phrases like “inquiry-based approach” and “examine vast human experiences,” the focus seems to have shifted to a more contemporary lens, depicting issues that impact all citizens, young and old. 


This new definition also reflects a more active role of the student, leading them to consider a myriad of perspectives when generating opinions about what has shaped our world. It has the potential to inspire students to question, think about what is just, and then find ways to resolve challenges for different groups of people. 


An emphasis on equity


It’s also worth noting the change in disciplines referenced as part of the new definition. While some remained, the newly crafted definition includes several areas that represent equity


The specific areas of study mentioned in the revised definition include history, geography, cultural geography, human geography, economics, government, citizenship, civics, psychology, sociology, political science, international relations, anthropology, archaeology, gender studies, LGBTQ+ studies, ethnic studies (African American studies, Asian American and Pacific Islander studies, Indigenous studies, and Latin American studies), human rights and social justice, including human rights education, social justice issues, international organizations, and genocide studies, financial literacy (different from economics), and finally, contemporary issues, including courses in current events and the study of one or more social studies topics in current contexts (NCSS, 2023). 


An inquiry-based approach


As previously stated, the primary purpose of social studies was to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world (NCSS, 2023). However, this updated version seems to lead educators and scholars to consider using an inquiry-based approach, one that “helps students examine vast human experiences through the generation of questions, collection, and analysis of evidence from credible sources, consideration of multiple perspectives, and the application of social studies knowledge and disciplinary skills” (NCSS, 2023).  


In asking students to examine the past while participating in the present and learning how to shape the future, the newly defined social studies will prepare learners for a lifelong practice of civil discourse and civic engagement in their communities. Social studies will now center on the knowledge of human rights and local, national, and global responsibilities so that we can work together to create a just world in which we want to live.


What we believe about inquiry-based learning


One of the things that we feel strongly about at Schoolwide is the importance of promoting active learning in the classroom. The role of discourse is crucial, which is why we strategically replace some of our direct instruction with questions that produce thoughtful conversations. This line of inquiry creates opportunities for students to learn more and develop deeper understandings because we incorporate a process that includes student thinking, reflecting, researching, conversing, affirming, and revising. 


Similar to science, true inquiry begins with a question that students explore as they learn. Through the use of a matrix, our Fundamentals units invite students to focus on an enduring understanding while exploring answers to essential questions and sub-questions.


Our goal in Schoolwide’s units is for students to assume the role of researcher. By using open-ended questions, students are not memorizing facts but instead are synthesizing information from multiple sources and determining what is important and relevant. 


Inquiry-based learning and its importance for the support of multilingual learners


When teachers use an inquiry approach, they are honoring the practice of using background knowledge as a launchpad for discussion and affirmation for multilingual learners. 


Inquiry also invites students to think, share, pose questions, and research in a safe climate while feeling supported by the modeling of their classroom teachers. By inviting students to activate and value their curiosity, exploration and discovery quickly follow. Content or interdisciplinary experiences provide natural scaffolds for students to learn through multiple genres, through discourse, and through activating their personal knowledge toolbox or schema. 


Because multilingual learners are learning new content and a new language simultaneously, how information and content are shared is critical (Jana Echevarria, 2022, “Reflections on Teaching Multilingual Learners”, Using Inquiry-Based Learning with Multilingual Learners). That’s why we provide objectives after an introductory exploratory activity. The exploration aspect is preserved, yet the purpose of the lesson and learning outcomes are clarified for students 


When thinking about content literacy, language and vocabulary become a focus. Our units provide the research, the practices, and the support (TPR, list-group-label, semantic gradients, visual representations of words, etc.). Provisions for linguistic and nonlinguistic representation of words are critical for students to develop a stronger understanding of unfamiliar words and phrases. 


How we are thinking about evolving our resources in the lens of inquiry 


So, what does this all mean for how we’re further developing our future resources? We know that we must create a renewed focus on knowledge attainment and inquiry:


  • We want to enhance the experience of building background knowledge 

  • We want to design lessons with the intention for each student to become an expert in an aspect of the content being studied

  • We want to create Inquiry lessons that resonate with students

  • We want to continue to create lessons that include meaningful activities that integrate the lesson’s concepts with opportunities to practice and develop reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills

  • We want to reinforce the notion that good researchers reflect on their outcomes and are open to affirm, revise, or learn from others


A final thought on inquiry and student-led learning 


Inquiry-based lessons that incorporate the use of primary sources, project-based learning, and a compelling question in every lesson will challenge and grow students’ critical thinking skills and abilities and prepare them for future roles in our society. 







National Council for the Social Studies:


Reflections on Teaching Multilingual Learners: Using Inquiry-Based Learning with Multilingual Learners

Get Our Newsletter