Practical Strategies to Connect Making and Literacy

Two young students coloring and gluing crafts.Hands-on learning is what maker education is all about! So, why is it that we focus our efforts on science and math and don’t often think about hands-on learning when it comes to literacy? Our reading and writing instruction within the English language arts classroom is primarily based in text. Students read, write, and practice literacy skills through the books and papers that we provide.

We want to know if students comprehend what they are reading, so we hand them a test or ask them to complete a written reflection. These traditional methods certainly measure comprehension, but why do we limit students’ learning in this way?

Maker learning can align well with the development of literacy skills when we take the time to thoughtfully integrate strategies that will enhance both skill sets and allow students to demonstrate their understanding through something they design, make, or engineer.

If we alter our instructional practices from paper-and-pencil-based learning to active hands-on experiences, we can do the following:

  • Build basic literacy skills
  • Increase student engagement
  • Enhance student understanding
  • Help students overcome reading difficulties
  • Build vocabulary skills
  • Strengthen comprehension
  • Increase student creativity
  • Make student learning more visible

When it comes to literacy learning, making can be digital or physical. We can incorporate high-tech tools that engage learners through robotics and animation. We can also connect literature to low-tech tools in the classroom, library, or makerspace with simple materials and manipulatives. Low-tech tools like cardboard, clay, building blocks, beads, buttons, and recyclable items can add a maker component to literacy instruction just as effectively as circuits, green screen technology, or virtual reality.

Consider the essential components of effective literacy instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. There are simple ways that we can activate maker learning within all of these literacy strands.

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Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness means that learners are recognizing sounds, rhyming, and syllables within words. Pair this development with making through these simple strategies:

  • Create drums, shakers, or other musical instruments in the makerspace, and then have primary students tap, beat, or stomp out the sounds they hear in words like pin, bird, or cake. Older students can try the same approach with syllabication of words like story, bicycle, or misunderstand.
  • Another hands-on way to make phonemic awareness more concrete for students is to string beads. Students can create a bracelet with a pipe cleaner and plastic beads, creating a pattern with the colors. When practicing phonemic awareness, they can move one bead at a time to represent each sound. This tactile way to address skill development will pair the physical movement with their knowledge of sounds, creating a stronger link in their minds.

Phonics

As learners begin to develop literacy skills, they will start with an understanding of letters and sounds. Letter recognition can be easily tied to making, as students can construct individual letters using anything from building bricks to Play-Doh. Our students used their phonetic skills to create decorative words for our makerspace. One class worked together to create the word “collaboration” using materials from the makerspace, with each letter being made from a different material. Using K’NEX, cardboard, crayons, and even Strawbees®, the letter construction activity was a favorite for our kindergarten students.

3DBearYou can also add high-tech phonics activities through digital word-building. Try an augmented reality tool like 3DBear. Students can create an image within the app and build a word by adding letters to the scene. This tool can also be used for older students to help develop vocabulary knowledge in the content areas. Learning about the solar system? Have students create a scene within 3DBear, adding augmented reality images of the planets and incorporating text or audio to demonstrate understanding of key terms and ideas.

Vocabulary

Exposing students to robust vocabulary occurs in all subject areas, not just within literacy-focused classrooms — consider the words that students are introduced to in the early grades through children’s literature. Intermediate-level students expand their vocabulary as they build knowledge in science and math. Middle and high school students further advance their vocabulary as they learn in social studies courses, foreign language classes, and elective courses. Making can help students create concrete connections at any level as they physically construct their vocabulary words.

Are your students learning about Tier 3 vocabulary words like concave and convex? What better way for them to remember the difference than by building a model to demonstrate? Simply drawing the vocabulary words can help students develop personal meaning for the words and create a visual image to help them remember the meaning.

Fluency

Oral reading fluency requires students to read with speed, accuracy, and prosody through regular practice. Incorporating maker strategies can provide motivation for students, as well as a tactile approach to learning. Using building bricks and a label maker, print a variety of words on each brick. Students can physically build short phrases and sentences with the bricks to engage in repeated readings to build oral fluency.

Fluency can also be developed with high-tech maker tools. Equipped with an iPad® or other device to capture video, students can partner-read poems or passages to build fluency. Recording and watching the videos will allow students to practice their rate and accuracy and reflect on their personal progress.

Fluency can also be built through reader’s theater by having students engage in repeated readings as practice for a performance. Students can design props for their theater roles or even build a set. The hands-on creation will allow students with creative strengths to shine while also engaging them to build fundamental literacy skills.

Comprehension

Developing student understanding of texts requires ongoing support and intervention. There are a variety of ways to incorporate making into the classroom to support reading comprehension. As opposed to relying on paper-and-pencil tests or oral checks for understanding, try these maker strategies to show what students know.

  • Is the setting critical to the development of the story? Ask students to build it using recyclable materials such as cardboard and plastics. They can recreate the entire setting or an important scene from the story.
  • Need to ensure that students understand a story or chapter? Have students use Flipgrid to create a one-minute video summary.
  • Working on character development? Encourage students to define character traits and create a digital animation of the character traits using Scratch or iMovie.

These are just some of the ways simple hands-on learning strategies can enhance instruction in phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. As you start to build hands-on learning into your literacy practices, you’ll find myriad opportunities for students to create, boost their critical thinking skills, and extend their learning.

Additional Resources for Connecting Literacy Learning and Making

Author

Dr. Jacie Maslyk

Dr. Jacie Maslyk

As a connected educator and established school and district leader, Dr. Jacie Maslyk has served as a teacher, coach, principal, curriculum director, and assistant superintendent. She has presented at the state, national, and international levels, including FETC, ILA, and NAESP. An invited keynote speaker, Dr. Maslyk also consults with school districts looking to implement innovative practices in their schools.

A published author, Dr. Maslyk has written articles on the maker movement, STEAM education, instructional technology, leadership, and literacy. In 2015, she received the Frank S. Manchester Award for excellence in journalism. She is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom, as well as a chapter in the upcoming EduMatch Publishing book on makerspaces. Dr. Maslyk is currently writing a book on unlocking creativity in the classroom.