McDougle Elementary School’s District Literacy Program is built on sound, scientifically-based research.  It includes five areas of instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension. Reading and writing is taught in the “workshop model” with students collaborating in small groups and with partners. Children learn how to read and write by listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Comprehensive Literacy Framework

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools teaches literacy within a comprehensive literacy framework based on the work of Irene Fountas & Gay Su Pinnell.  This is a framework that is designed to "balance" instruction in which students spend time receiving direct instruction from teachers in reading skills/strategies, phonics/word study principles, and writing skills/strategies along with time spent engaging in these literacy activities independently.  Balanced Literacy incorporates all reading approaches realizing that students need both direct, explicit instruction and time to practice in order to become proficient readers and writers.  It provides and improves the skills of reading, writing, thinking, speaking and listening for all students.

At McDougle, we teach reading, writing and word study (spelling/phonics and vocabulary) through a workshop model.

*Reading Workshop consists of:
  • a brief minilesson (about a reading strategy, literary analysis, workshop procedures) - 10-20 min.
  • reading!  Students may be reading alone (in choice of "just-right" books), with a teacher in a guided reading group (reading text at instructional level), having a reading conference with a teacher, or reading with a partner.  Time might range from 30-50 min.
  • sharing time (whole class or with partners) - 5 min.
*Writing Workshop consists of:
  • a brief minilesson (focused on writing craft or conventions) - 10 min.
  • writing!  Teachers have conferences with students about their writing during this time, either individually or in small groups.  This is where conventions (grammar, spelling, mechanics of writing) are taught, within the context of the student's writing.  Time might range from 20-30 min.
  • sharing time (whole class or with partners) - 5 min.
*Word Study time consists of:
  • phonics/spelling principles and practice
  • vocabulary study
  • handwriting
Frequently Asked Questions
The following questions are concerns parents often have. These brief answers may help explain how teaching and learning occur today and may clear up some common confusions. The final word however, is to always seek out your child’s teacher if you have questions.

1. What do I say or do when my child gets stuck on a word? I want to help. Do I just give her the word? Or say ‘sound it out’?

First of all, reading with your student should be a pleasant experience. Some children can appear frustrated when reading with family members because they want to be perfect for you. If your child seems frustrated, simply say the word and let the student continue reading.

On the other hand, we don’t want students to view parents as their first “strategy!” If your child automatically turns to you for help at every unfamiliar word, you could gently suggest that he “try something.”

Figuring out words is part of the normal process of reading. We don’t expect learners to “get every word right” but rather to build an efficient system of learning what to do when they do encounter unknown words. Proficient readers solve words by using a balance of all the sources of information: meaning (what would make sense), structure (what would sound right) and visual (what would look right— letters, sounds). Learning to orchestrate all the sources of information takes time and practice.

Your prompts could be: “What would make sense?” or “Try that part again,” to prompt rereading. Saying “Sound it out” as the only strategy handicaps readers; there are just too many words in English that you can’t sound out by using phonics.


2. My child seems to know a word one day, but then she forgets it the next day. Should I put all the words on cards and drill her on them?

There are some children who see a word once and remember it forever. However, that is not the case with most kids. When students are learning to recognize new
words in print, they need to have many, many experiences with those words. For example, your child may recognize the word ‘here’ in one book because she knows the pattern of that book well. But when that word appears in another book, she may not automatically know it—perhaps it appears in a different place, or has a capital at the beginning, or is written with a different font.

The more students see words in a variety of settings and the more times they problem solve words in texts, the more they will come to know challenging words. It is better to get repeated practice in actual books rather than putting words on flash cards. Flash card practice may lead your child to believe that reading is only about accurately calling the words. Some students get so focused on saying the words correctly that they lose the sense of the story.

In addition, your child is using a lot of high frequency words during writing workshop. She is learning to use the word wall, a classroom reference display that contains high frequency words. All of this will quicken her eventual automatic recognition of such words.


3. I remember learning a bunch of rules, like ‘when two vowels go walking, the first does the talking.’ Are you teaching my child the phonics rules? And what about spelling tests?

Phonics is taught as part of our balanced literacy framework but it is integrated throughout our day. We teach phonics but we don’t teach phonics rules in isolation. Research shows that because there are so many exceptions to the rules, it isn’t effective to teach most of these to children. For example, the popular rule, “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking,” only works about 45 percent of the time. We teach students that reading is making meaning, so we want to keep our focus there, rather than on memorizing phonics rules. We do have word work as a component of our literacy framework, which includes phonics woven into various parts of our reading and writing workshops.

We do not do Friday spelling tests, with a list to memorize handed out on Monday and tested on Friday. We do teach how to spell words, and we teach and practice core lists of high frequency words (and others) appropriate to each grade level. High frequency words are words that are read frequently in reading, written frequently in writing and thus, are useful, necessary words to know and to know quickly. Teachers select high frequency and other words to illustrate useful strategies, principles and spelling patterns (if you know ‘look’ you can write ‘hook’). We teach children how to find the resource you need to help spell words, how to use one thing you know to help you write something you don’t yet know.

Like we wrote in FAQ #2:

There are some children who see a word once and remember it forever. However, that is not the case with most kids. When students are learning to… they need to have many, many experiences with those words.

Our goal is to equip students with a functional, core knowledge of how words work and how to accurately write many words that are part of standard writing. But it’s a developing process.

4. My child is bringing home books that are too easy. Why is he reading such easy books?

The easy answer to a rather complex area is that for the most part, we want the books students read at home to be “easy.” Such books, if they are books that the teacher has taught during guided reading, should be relatively easy for a student to read by the time they bring them home. Teachers will have already helped students problem solve unfamiliar words and practice fluent reading. Teachers will also have presented high level comprehension questions which increases understanding and allows for fluent reading.

Some people have the misconception that reading has to be hard to be challenging when in fact, just the opposite is true. Reading levels need to be just right in order for students to comprehend what they read, and to activate the high level of thinking about texts that is so important for literacy development. When reading is hard, students spend too much time “decoding” and lose the meaning of the story, thus impacting comprehension.

We teach beyond just remembering or knowing something about a story, to analysis and evaluation: Why did…Why do you think…

A final note: you may see your child reading books like the Harry Potter series, yet bringing home very slim books that look “easy”. These easy-looking texts may have complex storylines or features that teachers use to teach or support a reading strategy, or to build background knowledge. Looks, size, even the fact that your child says the book is easy can mislead you to think your child isn’t being challenged. Always, always talk with your child’s teacher if you are concerned about this issue.

5. I check my child’s backpack every night, but there aren’t many papers coming home. Is my child doing any actual work?

More and more, schools have changed from giving students masses of worksheets to more authentic tasks. The majority of our learning is done interactively—with the whole class, in small groups, or with partners. We spend the majority of our time on authentic tasks such as reading books, writing original pieces of writing, using manipulatives in math, collaborating on projects together, and using computers and SmartBoards. Students will be bringing home books and pieces of their writing and fewer worksheets than a decade ago.

6. How do I know that my child understands what he/she is reading? What should I do when he/she finishes a book?

When your child is reading, you can tell if he understands if he laughs at the funny parts, spontaneously talks about what the characters are doing, or connects to an experience of his own. Encourage these natural responses because they are good evidence that a reader comprehends what he reads. You can start a natural conversation by asking things like “So what did you think of that book?” or “Did it remind you of anything?”.

Did you know? 
All MES teachers are given explicit literacy training in excess of 40 hours? All teachers utilize the balanced literacy framework that includes guided reading, word study, and writing workshop. All students are taught in groups that match their instructional level. MES scores well above the state average in literacy in every grade!

Parts of these questions and answers are adapted from Catching Readers Before They Fall, Pat Johnson and Katie Keier, 2010, Stenhouse.