Joyful Literacy is an evidence-based, culturally and linguistically sustaining, and whole-child approach to support young children's literacy development. The approach integrates socioemotional learning strategies and creative expression activities with evidence-based early literacy practices. When engaged with these practices, children develop language, literacy, and critical thinking skills while also learning how literacy can be creative, evoke feelings of joy, and cultivate a sense of belonging in school.
Educators everywhere are asking: How can we infuse more joy in teaching and learning? The REL West Partnership for Joyful Literacy in PreK–1st Grade, in collaboration with the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE), isresponding to this need with educator-friendly tools and events to introduce evidence-based—and joyful—practices in early literacy.
Early literacy and supporting partners to put evidence-based practice into action are both priorities for REL West. Research demonstrates that early academic skills related to literacy and math are the most significant predictors of future academic achievement.i When we strengthen underserved students' early literacy skills and ensure they have access to high-quality instructional materials and evidence-based instruction, we address achievement gaps and create more equitable schooling.ii
The SCOE Early Literacy Partnership is led by Dr. Pamela Spycher and Dr. Kim Austin, who both have extensive experience in early literacy research and practice and have been leading the development of Joyful Literacy resources for REL West for the past five years. The following is a conversation with Dr. Spycher and Dr. Austin and their Sacramento County Office of Education partners about the launch of the new partnership and how the Joyful Reading and Creative Expression with Young Children Planning Guide already is supporting early childhood teachers, coaches, and principals to transform early literacy learning.
REL West: How are you partnering with SCOE staff?
Pam Spycher (partnership co-lead): Based on persistent literacy achievement gaps across Sacramento county, SCOE leaders initiated a partnership with REL West to support local education agencies (LEAs) improve literacy outcomes in preschool through third grade. Through this partnership, REL West is providing direct technical assistance and professional learning alongside our SCOE partners to individual schools and school districts. This is a true collaboration that has surpassed our initial expectations. We are lucky and grateful to be partnering with SCOE colleagues who are extremely knowledgeable in everything early literacy, and early childhood more broadly, with decades of experience to channel into our collaboration. Currently, we meet weekly in person and communicate virtually almost daily to collaboratively plan professional learning, create resources, reflect on professional learning we've provided, and discuss dissemination and long-term plans to scale and sustain the work.
What's most exciting for REL West is seeing how passionate our SCOE partners are about scaling this work to LEAs across their county and beyond to increase equitable access to high-quality and culturally affirming early literacy instruction that is both joyful and aligned to current research. SCOE already has scaled the professional learning and resources we've developed to other contexts and audiences, including after school and summer school programs, preschool networks, librarians, and pre-service teacher education. We hope that the work we do with SCOE can inform other county offices and school districts working to integrate literacy systems and scale and spread evidence-based literacy practices.
REL West: How would you describe the need for early childhood resources in Sacramento County?
Steven Hicks (Early Learning Coordinator, SCOE): Every state and community is recovering from the pandemic and getting back on track to the twenty-year expansion of early education for 3- and 4-year-olds universally. There is also a movement to focus on the P-3 continuum so that children have access to high-quality early learning experiences across the early grades. These are huge investments at the local, state, and federal levels. It is critical, too, that there are sufficient evidence-based resources that leverage this critical period of brain development and ensure that all children receive the kind of quality experiences that lead to success in kindergarten and beyond, regardless of the zip code in which they live.
REL West: How did the 2023 two-day Joyful Literacy Institute launch this work?
Pam: Our Joyful Literacy Institute was both joyful and cognitively invigorating, setting the stage for our multi-year partnership. We invited preschool through first grade teachers, instructional coaches, principals, district leaders, and librarians to come together for two days of learning, one day in the spring and one day in the fall. On these days, we shared the key recommended literacy instructional practices from six IES Practice Guides.1 The core resource we used was the REL West Joyful Reading and Creative Expression with Young Children Planning Guide, which includes tips, templates, and tools for interactive read alouds, powerful language instruction, creative expression activities, and family engagement. These days were incredibly interactive and fun while also rigorous. We engaged participants in reading and discussion to build their knowledge of evidence-based practices and provided ample time for them to reflect, practice new teaching strategies, plan lessons together, and create action plans for moving forward. We also created art, danced, sang, played, laughed, practiced grounding techniques, fostered a sense of belonging, and generally engaged participants in the kinds of joyful learning activities we'd like to see in P-3 classrooms.
REL West: How does this partnership work to embed evidence-based literacy practices?
Kim Austin (partnership co-lead): What's exciting about this approach is that the evidence-based practices—like asking higher-order comprehension questions or explicit vocabulary instruction—are "baked in" to engaging lessons grounded in rich and diverse children's books. Almost like baking in healthy veggies to a cracker or cookie! The Joyful Reading and Creative Expression with Young Children Planning Guide presents a clear and specific sequence for teaching to promote literacy skills in the context of interactive and fun lessons. We have heard again and again that educators—particularly in early childhood—are looking for high-quality resources to use with their children and families. The resources that REL West has developed, and will continue to develop, are meeting that need.
REL West: How did the Institute support your region's current priorities in early childhood?
Julie Montali (Executive Director of Early Learning, SCOE): Promoting effective approaches to early literacy has always been an important area of work for us at the Sacramento County Office of Education. However, we are in the midst of creating a broad literacy initiative that involves a wide array of professional learning. Our Joyful Literacy Institute was a perfect launch, bringing a variety of educators together from classroom teachers, coaches, staff who support after school and summer school enrichment programs in the county and more. Not only did the event promote the science of reading, but it also layered in the social and emotional aspects as well as underscoring the critical nature of culturally affirming books, building oral language, and integrating playful learning—all current priorities in early childhood! It was a celebration, in a sense—everyone left feeling inspired and excited with a few more tools in their literacy "toolbox" to implement immediately.
REL West: How did the resource presented at the training—the Joyful Reading and Creative Expression with Young Children Planning Guide—support educators in implementing evidence-based literacy practices?
Pam: Early childhood teachers are capable of complex literacy teaching, but planning effective lessons can feel overwhelming. Often, teachers go to professional learning and are asked to transfer what they learned into instruction right away. The Planning Guide gives teachers practical guidance, so they don't have to figure out this transfer on their own, walking them through the planning process in a structured, step-by-step, and manageable way. It gives them a tangible starting point: how to choose high-quality and culturally affirming books for interactive read alouds that are worthy of additional planning time. The Guide provides explanations and tips for the read alouds and for supporting children's writing and vocabulary development. It also includes some sample lessons teachers can use as models (or actually teach) and lesson planning templates to help them plan their own lessons.
Julie: I would add that the Guide anchors and streamlines a teacher's planning process. It provides techniques and reflective questions that can be applied to their own favorite books, allowing them to easily integrate the joyful literacy approach more broadly.
Steven: Yes! The Planning Guide creates a roadmap for early childhood educators that they can easily follow to create a love of books and set the foundation for joyful literacy.
REL West: What other audiences did you take the Joyful Reading and Creative Expression with Young Children Planning Guide to after this initial event, and what did teachers appreciate about the professional learning?
Steven: Immediately after the April institute, we started spreading joyful literacy by sharing the Joyful Reading and Creative Expression Planning Guide widely, such as presenting at multiple local conferences and staff development days. We discovered that after school and summer enrichment staff are enormously receptive to this professional learning and crave even more tools and resources to teach young children the skills and knowledge to build a foundation for early literacy. Teachers were excited to use so many resources from the Planning Guide: the book selection checklist, the dialogic reading strategies, and the explicit vocabulary instruction routine. The teachers loved the one-pagers of activities for families and caregivers to do with their children and how they are all grounded in culturally affirming books.
REL West: What do you hope to accomplish together, as part of this partnership?
Joyful literacy resources:
Joyful Reading and Writing with Young Children Resource Collection
Joyful Reading and Creative Expression with Young Children: Planning Guide [document]
Joyful Reading and Creative Expression with Young Children: Planning Tips and Tools [video]
A Teaching Routine for Academic Vocabulary in Grades PreK–1 [video]
Pam: What we're most excited about is building on the success of the Planning Guide to create the "Joyful Literacy Playbook." It's a compilation of resources for teachers, families, pre- and in-service teacher educators, and administrators that prioritizes joy and centers culturally diverse and multilingual children. The star of the playbook is the "book kits," which will feature high-quality and culturally affirming children's trade books with complete, exemplar lesson plans for interactive read alouds, comprehensive literacy development, creative expression through the arts, and social-emotional learning. The playbook will also include family engagement, professional learning, and leadership materials to support joyful literacy development from all angles. The best part is that the entire playbook will be available for free and easily accessible online.
Julie: I believe this collaboration will support our desire to create a common language around early literacy that is truly joyful and reach a broad range of educators and families to bring the love of reading to the full continuum of our young learners. Joyful Literacy is a wonderful example of how we can integrate social, emotional, culturally responsive and creative approaches with our knowledge of the science of reading—all of which will make the difference for children learning to read now and for a lifetime to come.
Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/19.
Burchinal, M., Krowka, S., Newman-Gonchar, R., Jayanthi, M., Gersten, R., Wavell, S., Lyskawa, J., Haymond, K., Bierman, K., Gonzalez, J. E., McClelland, M. M., Nelson, K., Pentimonti, J., Purpura, D. J., Sachs, J., Sarama, J., Schlesinger-Devlin, E., Washington, J., & Rosen, E. (2022). Preparing young children for school (WWC 2022009). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/30
Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/21
Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., & Tilly, W. D. (2008). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades. A practice guide (NCEE 2009-4045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/practiceguides/
Graham, S., Bollinger, A., Booth Olson, C., D'Aoust, C., MacArthur, C., McCutchen, D., & Olinghouse, N. (2012). Teaching elementary school students to be effective writers: A practice guide (NCEE 2012-4058). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/17
Shanahan, T., Callison, K., Carriere, C., Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Schatschneider, C., & Torgesen, J. (2010). Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through 3rd grade: A practice guide (NCEE 2010-4038). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/14
Spycher, P. (2021). Joyful reading and creative expression with young children planning guide. Regional Educational Laboratory West. Retrieved from https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/rel/regions/west/pdf/18.104.22.168_Video_Planning_Guide_FINAL_508c.pdf
1 Baker et al., 2014; Burchinal et al., 2022; Foorman et al., 2016; Gersten et al., 2008; Graham et al., 2012; Shanahan et al., 2010, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, What Works Clearinghouse.
i Early skills and predictors of academic success. (2016). Hanover Research. https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/ESSA-Evidence-Guides/Early_Skills_and_Predictors_of_Academic_Success