Literacy is one of the most important skills a young student can learn and one of the most important skills to grow and strengthen as students progress through the Lower School and into Middle and Upper School. 

While English and Social Studies courses may be the foundation for literacy skills, every subject matter and classroom experience requires literacy skills in some capacity. Similarly, developing strong literacy skills from an early age prepares students for success at both the college and career level.

Dr. Robert Gillingham Head of Lower School Heather Gray, Assistant Head of School for Strategic Direction and Head of Middle School Dan Lang, and Head of Upper School Ben Temple weighed in on the instructional methods, student learning outcomes, and philosophical guiding principles behind Parker’s literacy instruction. 



Our Lower School literacy instruction comprehensively teaches students to become powerful readers and writers. In the early grades, children develop strong decoding, phonemic awareness, and word recognition skills, which are the foundation for fluent reading and high-level comprehension.

Fundations, our phonics program for JK-Grade 2 students, is informed by the science of reading. This program allows us to monitor students’ decoding, word recognition, and phonemic awareness skills. These skills support children in their spelling development by providing a solid foundation in spelling patterns while also introducing trickier words that do not follow typical spelling rules.

At the same time, we guide our earliest learners in JK-Grade 2 to develop identities as readers—helping them build vocabulary, background knowledge, and thinking muscles so that when they begin to read more complicated books, they can better comprehend the text. We read rich, increasingly sophisticated literature aloud to students and create time to explore and talk about books and poems from a variety of genres as a classroom community, in small groups, and in partnerships. Every grade level integrates literacy into several social studies units where students can apply their reading and writing skills in a project setting. Projects include the animal research reports in Grade 1, the National Parks project in Grade 2, and environmental studies in Grade 5. 

In Grades 3 through 5, students become even more independent as readers and writers. They read in book clubs, write literary essays about character transformations, and deepen their ability to think, talk, and write about texts. Students learn to craft strong sentences and paragraphs in narrative, informational, and persuasive writing units and frequently share their stories and essays with their peers, parents, and teachers in the form of “publishing parties.” Students also learn how to write research-based paragraphs and essays by analyzing historical documents and synthesizing their learning using academic vocabulary and historical concepts.

Our classroom environments also support children’s literacy levels through well-stocked classroom libraries. Teachers and our culturally responsive literacy instructor Rebecca Bellingham ensure that these libraries provide both windows and mirrors: windows into worlds that differ from their own, as well as mirrors that honor their own lived experiences.

Along with teaching students how to read with powerful comprehension and write skillfully,  we help students develop “bookjoy,” a term coined by poet and children’s writer Pat Mora. One way you can support your children as they become powerful readers and writers, all the while nurturing their bookjoy, is by reading to them and with them at home.  Modeling a love of reading is also essential, and do not forget that our oldest elementary students still love being read to and benefit greatly from a daily read-aloud ritual.

Dan Lang

The Middle School years are a wonderful transition between the foundation laid during the Lower School years and the Upper School learning experience.

Middle School students arrive in Grade 6 having made the elementary transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Skills that were introduced in the elementary years are further developed and deepened. For example, many families will recognize the phrase, “Always read with a pencil in your hand,” as Grade 6 humanities courses focus on continued development and deepened competency in the skill of annotation.

Grade 7 and Grade 8 teachers depend on each successive year of annotation development to push students beyond merely reading and into deriving meaning through active interaction with the text. As students develop and explore their own life experiences, they find that the process of annotation and deep thinking about a text leads to an understanding that is unique to each student. 

Students will use this skill for the rest of their lives. For example, if you have returned to a well-loved text at different points in your own life, you might notice that the text now means something new to you. At Parker, students learn that it’s not the text that changes, rather, it is the human that is reading the text that changes. The skills we practice in Grades 6, 7, and 8 prepare them for a lifetime of academic achievement and human growth.

While Middle School students learn that meaning-making is their own, they also learn that it’s not an “everything is correct” environment. Analytical reading and writing require that students make meaning that is supported by the text. Knowing a text well, drawing evidence from the text, and presenting an argument are all skills taught and developed in Middle School.

To build students’ tool kit, each of the Grade 6, 7, and 8 English courses begins with a short story unit focused on the acquisition of understanding around the author’s craft and the literary tools the author might choose to create their art. Students apply their understanding of the author’s tools to their own argument about a specific piece of literature. 

As the year progresses, each grade level moves to larger, more complex work to grow the students’ capacity to sustain analyses over time. Parker students are known for their poise and public speaking; in fact, this is one of the key reasons that we ask students to lead our prospective family tours. That poise, confidence, and comfort with public speaking flows from the rigor of humanities curriculum that asks students to think logically and commit to careful communication of their ideas through well-crafted sentences, paragraphs, and papers. Writing, after all, is formalized communication of thought, and Parker produces excellent thinkers.

Ben Temple

Literacy in the Upper School is foundational to student work across all disciplines. While each course and department builds upon the skills of literacy in ways relevant to student learning, courses in Social Studies and English are especially focused on the skills and habits of mind fostered by literacy. 

English courses focus on the elemental structure of literature, including grammar, vocabulary, style, and making meaningful connections with the text. Through these skills, students begin to engage in a conversation with the text, both inside and outside of the classroom. Parker faculty select texts that provide a wide representation of age-appropriate poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction. Texts present differing perspectives, and students are invited into self-examination as they find their voices in classroom discussions, essays, presentations, and projects. 

Courses intentionally sequence resources by increasing complexity throughout the arc of the student experience. Examples include reflective or formative assignments, such as journaling and discussion questions. Textual analysis, creative writing, imitative writing, comparative writing, descriptive analysis, synthesis, and research are all components of the student experience in English courses at Parker. An example of these dynamics at work is Poetry Week. This year, the goal was for students to develop their voices as poets by reading poetry and composing and sharing their work with peers and beyond. 

Social Studies courses follow a similar approach of introducing sources of increasing complexity throughout the student’s time in the Upper School. Literacy skills are applied during projects, Harkness discussions, presentations, elevator pitches, research papers, discussions, and simulations. One outcome is increased social and emotional literacy, which allows students to better understand themselves and the world around them. Notable assignments are rooted in the history toolkit, which is a framework for students to build skills and understandings as historians. For example, in Grade 10, students explore the world before 1800 through a detailed examination of a commodity, oral history projects, and close investigations of the lives of people who significantly impacted history. 

Reading and writing support deep and sustained engagement for students in the Upper School throughout all departments. The English and Social Studies departments engage students in a wide array of literacy experiences, which supports student growth and development.

When it comes time for a Parker student to walk across the commencement stage and enter into the next chapter of their educational journey, their literacy skills are honed and ready for college-level coursework. Often, Parker alumni emphasize that they felt well prepared for higher level academics after so many years of thorough, comprehensive coursework, allowing them to excel during their undergraduate classes.  

Reading, writing, comprehension, and other literacy-related skills help our alumni succeed in their future careers as well—lawyers must accurately communicate while developing a deposition, engineers must read and understand complicated manuals and datasets, artists must write thought-provoking descriptions of their work for galleries. Every career held by Parker alums is bolstered by the strong literacy skills they developed as a Lancer. 

To continue to set our students up for success at the college level and beyond, literacy remains a core academic focus here at Parker.