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Student Profiles: Contextual Factors for Literacy-Based Instructional Decision-Making for Students in Grades 4 to 6

I am a husband, father, and grandfather. I was an elementary teacher for 14 years, and I am currently an associate professor of education.

Background Considerations in Planning for Literacy Instruction

Every child’s development is unique. Although children develop through a generally predictable sequence of milestones, we cannot say exactly when a child will reach a specific stage of development. Every child has his or her own timetable. Research has suggested that the best teaching takes into consideration children’s general developmental, cognitive, and social characteristics. In addition, developing effective literacy-based curriculum and instruction considers children’s likes, dislikes, cultures, families, and the communities in which they live and attend school. Learning these contextual factors will inform teachers in developing instructional decisions that will best serve the needs of their classroom children. The following sections cover some of the key factors related to children’s physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development in grades 4 to 6 in addition, some key descriptions of the typical literacy-based curriculum used for instruction.

Physical Considerations in Planning for Literacy Instruction

Children in the intermediate elementary grades are developing large motor control. They are growing more slowly than they were when they were younger. Because of this slow steady growth, they are becoming more adept at controlling their bodies through large motor control. Some get involved in individual and team sports. They like to play games with friends and not be around the teacher as much. They are also developing more precise, fine-motor control. Most children in grades 4 to 6 have accomplished penmanship, drawing, and keyboarding skills. This is the time to teach cursive writing if required in your school and intensive keyboarding skills.

Social and Emotional Considerations

Children in middle childhood enjoy making decisions for themselves and rely less on adults. They appreciate choices in books, composition topics, and project choices. Children at this stage develop more social cognition about how people relate to one another. They like to join clubs and groups as well as have best friends. They also begin to see and understand differences between people and the roles they play in life.

Children in the intermediate grades become more aware of their own personalities and they often become more self-critical as well as critical of others. They compare themselves to others. They are aware of who the good readers and writers are and who are the strugglers. If they struggle, they tend to blame themselves and will be less likely to want to learn new skills or take risks. It is important to plan for multicultural instruction and build understanding and appreciation for human differences, including differences in abilities.

Cognitive Considerations

Intermediate grade Children begin to think more logically than intuitively, they can classify objects into categories, interpret more complex text or written material, understand written and oral inferences and can read between the lines (Piaget, 1954). They become capable of internalizing the rules for leaning new words through reading in conjunction with explicit vocabulary instruction. Children that speak English as a second language become increasingly adept at switching back and forth between languages and dialects during conversation, thought, and composition.

Processing Text (“text" refers to all written material such as books, textbooks, and digital print)

Intermediate grade children develop understanding from what they read in relationship to their background knowledge (formed within the family, culture, and community) as a lens to make sense of the world around them, this includes language development, which involves reading and composition (Piaget & Cook, 1952). They develop personalized meaning from their readings. Personalized, contextual meaning-making involves the child’s background experiences, the author’s view (the text or any written material), and the social situation in which the reading occurred (the context). Within the meaning-making process of reading a text, the text in the child’s mind, is no longer the same text that was published by the author; it’s now a construction of meaning within the child-reader. Each meaning is unique to each reader because we all have different background experiences that we use as lenses for making meaning (Rosenblatt, 1978).


Motivating your elementary students is key to engaging them in learning. Two main ways to motivate children is to learn about their cultures and learn about their interests, and then you can use this information in planning for instruction. It is highly important to know your students’ cultures. Your students will bring a variety of background knowledge to each reading event that you plan. Intermediate grade children use their background knowledge to construct meaning from each new text they encounter; therefore, it is important to be familiar with the community in which you teach by getting to know the families of your students. One way to do this is through a culture survey by asking students about favorite family foods, activities, holidays they celebrate, places of worship, and languages spoken by family members. Other ways include becoming involved yourself in the community through volunteer work.

Motivation also plays a key role in your students’ literacy development. Motivation in reading is a combination of a student’s personal goals, values, and beliefs as they apply to reading a specific selection of reading material or text. Most of your students will have reading preferences and different motivations to read different kinds of literature. Finding out what your students’ interests are can help you select literature for instruction. You can do this by giving interest surveys to your elementary students such as the one included below:

  1. Do you ever play video games? If so, tell me about your favorite games.
  2. Do you ever read on your own? If so, tell me about something you read.
  3. Do you ever write about anything? If so, tell me about something you wrote about.
  4. Do you enjoy watching movies? If so, tell me about a movie you saw.
  5. Do you enjoy watching TV shows? If so, tell me about a TV show that you like.
  6. Do you enjoy talking to your friends about video games, movies, and TV shows? If, so, what do you like to talk about?

The Use of Reading Strategies

It is important to know that when your intermediate-grade students read, they use strategies before they read, while they read, and after they read. Before reading, they might preview the text by skimming and scanning, set purposes for reading, choose appropriate reading strategies for the demands of the text, i.e., fast reading of narrative material and slow reading of expository material along with note taking. While reading, they check their understanding by rereading difficult sections, making inferences, and getting the main ideas of the reading piece. After reading, they summarize and synthesize what they have read and respond in some way, e.g., discussion, composition, artwork, or seeking further information on the topic through discussion with friends, Internet, or library searches.

Characteristics of the Reading Material

The reading material in the intermediate grades has more complex text structures, such as longer, more complex sentences, word length, and vocabulary. The books have more text (denser), pages, and less pictures and illustrations. Textbooks and other expository reading material has more marginal information, i.e., written information in the margins outside of the main text, along with more graphs, charts, and other types of diagrams, that connect with the main text in adding overall information to the topics being studied.

Categories of Text Structures and Matching Strategies

Intermediate grade students will need to be able to identify different text structures or the way written material is organized. Narrative material, whether it is factual or fictional, is organized into story grammars that include settings, characters, problems, events, and conclusions. Expository material, i.e., written material aimed at explaining factual information, is typically organized into the structures of main-ideas, details, problem-solutions, cause-effects, and comparisons-contrasts. Textbooks are usually main ideas with details.

When selecting methods and strategies for teaching a text, it is important to match the strategy with the type of text being taught, some strategies can be used with both, but many cannot. There is a list of literacy strategies below corresponding to the text type most applicable for teaching.

For narrative text:

  • Think Alouds
  • Reciprocal Questioning
  • Open-Ended Questioning
  • Questioning the Author
  • Personal Vocabulary Journal
  • Free-Response Journal
  • Illustrative Journal

For expository, nonfiction text:

  • Venn Diagram
  • KWL Charts
  • Alphabet Books
  • Book Boxes
  • T-Charts
  • Data Charts
  • Context-Clue (see Weih, 2017a, 2017b)
  • SQRWR (see Weih, 2017e)-is used only with expository text types.

For both narrative and expository, nonfiction text:

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  • Exclusive Brainstorming
  • Prereading Plan
  • Word Ladders
  • Word Sorts
  • Word Walls
  • Anticipation Guides
  • Book Talks
  • KWL Charts
  • Picture Walks
  • QTAR (see Weih, 2017c, 2017d)
  • Quick Writes

Social Situations

The social context of literacy events in the intermediate grades includes who, what, where, when, and how the reading and composition events or student activities will occur. Intermediate grade students like to be with their friends and discuss what they are reading together in small groups. It is important to plan literature circles, book clubs, buddy reading, reader’s theatre, and shared composition events. In planning these events, it is crucial to consider how to physically arrange the classroom to provide for a variety of places to read, discuss, and write socially (Vygotsky, 1978).

Classroom Considerations

Each age-group of children tend to be unique in overall, or overriding attributes, but we can make some general assumptions based on background experiences in teaching this age-group of children.

Intermediate grade classrooms will have between 25 to 30 students. Teachers usually have a mixed-ability group (heterogeneous group), with students who cannot read above a pre-primer level to students who can read high school textbooks. Teachers will have English Language Learners, gifted students, and students that have been identified with special needs or learning disabilities.

Teachers get to know their students through surveys, i.e., culture surveys and interest surveys as mentioned previously in this article. Teachers plan “get to know each other” activities (see Weih, 2016a; Weih, 2016b). Teachers observe their students very closely while they are working and interacting with each other and take notes about each student. Teachers engage their students in creating learning projects, classroom bulletin boards, class conduct rules, and delegate responsibility to the students as much as appropriately possible. Teachers listen to what the students want to do and try their best to integrate student-preferences within their predetermined set of guideline parameters that they explain to the students ahead of time.

Special Terms to Consider

Teachers will find it helpful to know what terms are frequently used to identify certain groups of students. A brief list is included below:

  • Special needs students are students who have been identified and diagnosed with some type of disability or giftedness.
  • A Learning disability is a cognitive impairment that effects a child’s memory, auditory perception, or visual perception, not to be confused with physical impairments such as hearing impaired or visual impairment. About half of special needs students have been diagnosed with a learning disability usually in reading, math, and language.
  • Gifted students are children that have been identified by intelligence tests, achievement tests, and observation over time to have above average intellectual abilities.
  • An Inclusive classroom is a classroom in which students with special needs are assigned to for the entire school day, or most of it, along with general education students. The general education teacher along with the visiting special education teacher collaborate in planning and delivering instruction.
  • Title 1 is a federally funded program serving students that do not qualify for special education in the area of reading or math, yet, fall short of benchmark goals in academic achievement in these areas. These students get extra support in reading or math either inside the general education classroom, or they leave to go to the Title 1 teacher’s classroom. The two teachers decide when and how additional instruction will take place. The support is not meant to replace the classroom reading instruction, but instead is to be added to it.
  • ELL students are students who are learning English as a second language or English Language Learners.


Competent teachers take the time to get to know their classroom children’s developmental characteristics, in addition: their likes, dislikes, special interests, and families. Moreover, capable teachers take time to get to know the communities comprising the school building, school district, and city or town in which they teach. With this knowledge- base of contextual factors, effective teachers can make literacy-based instructional decisions that best suit the needs of their classroom children.

Motiving and inspiring intermediate grade students is best achieved by involving them in as much of the planning and work in the classroom as possible. They can write, draw, plan, construct, build, and work in small groups to get things done. Effective teachers assume the role of facilitators, but that does not mean that they do not keep order, organization, structure, and set parameters, because the children will function best when the teacher sets the stage for effective learning to happen, and the students need the teacher to be physically with them and engaged in the learning process through modeling for them and guiding their learning.

Research-Based References

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.

Piaget, J. (1954). The development of object concept (M. Cook, Trans.). In J. Piaget & M. Cook (Trans.), The construction of reality in the child (pp. 3-96). New York, NY, US: Basic Books.

Rosenblatt, L. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, ILL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Weih, T. G. (2016a). Classroom relationships: Laying the foundation for a teamwork perspective with elementary students.

Weih, T. G. (2016b). Teaching poetry: Learning to understand and appreciate our differences with elementary students.

Weih, T. G. (2017a). Context-Clue strategy: Teaching students word solving skills-Part 1.

Weih, T. G. (2017b). Context-Clue strategy: Teaching students word solving skills-Part 2.

Weih, T. G. (2017c). Reading comprehension: Question-text-answer-relationship (QTAR)-part 1.

Weih, T. G. (2017d). Reading comprehension: Question-text-answer-relationship (QTAR)-part 2.

Weih, T. G. (2017e). Reading comprehension: Scan-question-read-write-review (SQRWR).

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