Structuring the Literacy Block

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Structuring the literacy block hero

The most productive literacy blocks give students opportunities to work with their teacher in large and small groups, work with small groups of peers, and work independently. Research findings on early literacy development strongly recommend an extended period for instruction—at least 90 minutes. There should be limited interruptions, and all students should have opportunities to engage in different reading and writing activities. The actual number of minutes in a school’s reading block and the needs of students will determine how teachers divide the time devoted to reading and writing.

Reading Block Activities

It is essential that literacy blocks include the following activities:

  • Explicit instruction and practice on foundational reading skills such as recognizing and manipulating word parts presented orally (phonemic awareness), understanding letter-sound relationships (phonics), blending letter-sound patterns to produce words (decoding), or understanding common spelling patterns (encoding).
  • Targeted, whole-class reading or writing instruction in a teacher-led lesson as a precursor to the longer period of independent or small-group work; during the mini-lesson, the teacher (1) ties new content or skills to what has been learned previously; (2) states the teaching point that will be presented (e.g., use of dialogue in narrative writing); (3) models or explains the teaching point, usually with some textual support; (4) asks students to practice the teaching point with partners; and (5) restates the focus of the mini-lesson; the teacher then sends students to their independent and small-group work.
  • Small-group instruction, during which teachers meet with small groups and other students work independently, work with partners, work in centers, or practice their developing skills.
    • Print or digital practice activities are available.
    • Center work reinforces what students have been learning.
    • Teachers check in with and debrief to ensure that students are maximizing their time.
  • A variety of interactive and independent reading and writing activities, for example:
    • Read alouds, during which teachers model reading and engage students actively in asking and answering questions
    • Instruction to build vocabulary and background knowledge
    • Writing independently or with a partner
    • Engaging in shared reading with a partner
    • Reading independently in trade books (~15–20 minutes) with teachers monitoring the reading

90-Minute Literacy Block Schedule Example

Within these parameters, students at each level must receive focused, explicit instruction on foundational skills. The following guidelines are advisable and reflect the development of reading over the early grades:

Advised Explicit Instruction on Foundational Skills for Grades K–2: 90-Minute Literacy Block Schedule

Regardless of students’ needs, the literacy block is a busy time for teachers and students alike. It can flow most smoothly when teachers help students understand their responsibilities in moving from whole-class instruction to small groups to independent work. The advantages of such a dynamic instructional structure include building community through whole-class work, offering instruction in focused small-group interactions, prioritizing students’ time practicing skills alone and with peers, and alternating times when students sit and listen with times when they are more active. It is important that students come to understand—right from the beginning—that they are, in fact, active participants in the learning process.

Much of the support for this dynamic, active model of instruction comes from work by researchers whose focus has been on young learners in Tier 1 classrooms who either seem at risk for reading difficulties or who are actually falling behind grade-level expectations. Explicit, high-quality Tier 1 instruction provides differentiated, culturally responsive core academic instruction and helps students learn the culture, norms, and “languages” of school. When well implemented, Tier 1 instruction should ensure positive outcomes for a minimum of 80 percent of all students.


Learn more about our science of reading curriculum, an evidence-based approach to help students in their reading journeys.

This blog was originally published as a chapter in our white paper “Science-Based Elements of Effective Early Literacy Programs.”

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