Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools

close up photography of colored pencils
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I spent some time this summer drafting a policy proposal for the P2Tomorrow competition, mostly as an exercise to sharpen my own thinking around issues I’ve seen with literacy. Thanks to some great feedback from some very smart people (if you are reading this and you are one of them: thank you!), I am proud of the final result. I didn’t win, but I don’t feel so bad about that since the winners are a truly diverse and amazing collection of ideas (see the list of winners and their ideas here).

So I’m sharing my proposal with you. Please share if you find these ideas useful.

Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools

The Problem with Literacy: It’s Not Just ELA

Is literacy a subject, or a whole school endeavor?

While defining “literacy” is tricky, especially in a rapidly changing society, most would include in their definition the ability to read and think critically and to communicate effectively. Such literacy is not developed haphazardly nor solely within one subject. It requires a school to work cohesively across classrooms to develop shared expectations, content, and practices.

Yet states label Grade 3-8 literacy assessments as “English Language Arts,” and accountability thus falls primarily on the shoulders of one content area: the ELA department. In effect, ELA is reduced to the practice of generic and shallow reading and writing skills as preparation for state assessments. Results on both national (NAEP) and international (PISA) scores for reading have flatlined for two decades. One reason is that most students receive only scattered exposure to the academic language and conceptual understandings gained from a school-wide engagement in a coherent set of literacy practices.

Though the Common Core Standards attempted to address this disconnect through promotion of literacy standards for ELA and History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects, a misconception remains in the field that the recommendation for a “balance between informational and literary reading” should be solely driven by ELA, rather than across those other content areas. This has led some educators to believe literature should now rarely be taught, a misreading reinforced by state ELA assessments skewed towards nonfiction passages.

This narrowing of the curriculum has been widely recognized since 2001. ESSA sought to rectify this by redefining what is meant by a “well-rounded education,” and including more subjects beyond the “core academic subjects” of the original ESEA legislation. ESSA also allows Title II funding to be used to help teachers “integrate comprehensive literacy instruction in a well-rounded education.”

Yet thus far states have been largely unable to clarify what it means to teach literacy coherently and effectively at the ground-level. Some school leaders and teachers continue to remain misinformed about the key shifts of their own state standards, and confusion about the meaning of literacy and its relationship to ELA and other subjects has led to a wide variety of pedagogical approaches and curricula of variable quality, complicated by layers of often contradictory state and district policies and initiatives.

A growing recognition of the importance of curriculum and the need for more effective resources is promising, but solutions must go far beyond the evaluation and adoption of higher quality curriculum. A school may adopt standards-aligned, high quality curriculum for various subjects but remain completely incoherent. What is needed are consistent and ongoing processes for collaborative planning and reflection on curriculum and literacy practices across a school.

What State and District Leaders Can Do

How can state and district leaders support school teams in developing, reflecting on, and sustaining processes that will promote literacy coherently across a school?

There are four moves that policy leaders can make:

  • Redefine literacy
  • Clarify expectations for school-wide processes for collaborative planning and reflection on literacy content and practices
  • Create a process for surveying educators and the wider public on what texts should be selected for literacy assessments, and publish that list in advance of each school year
  • Promote team — rather than individual — accountability for results on literacy assessments

Step 1 We have to begin with a redefinition of what we mean by literacy.
The ESEA, since updated under NCLB and ESSA, requires states to assess “reading or language arts” annually in grades 3-8. Despite ESSA’s expansion on a “well-rounded education,” states continue to narrowly label their assessments as subject-specific ELA (46 out of 50, according to my count). Only 6 states mention the word “literacy” in their assessment title.

It may seem like a small thing, but relabeling state assessments as literacy assessments, rather than ELA, would send a clear signal that literacy is not confined to a single subject. This could initiate a state-wide dialogue about what literacy means as a whole school endeavor.

Step 2 As a part of that dialogue, expectations should be developed for what school-level processes will support the development of shared, high-quality literacy content and practices. As a model, the International Baccalaureate standards for curriculum provide guidance for the collaboration and discussion expected between all teachers within a school. By establishing clear criteria for ongoing school-based reflection and curriculum alignment, state and district leaders can promote the idea that curriculum is dynamic and constantly in development, rather than a static item that is purchased and put in place.

Step 3 To further foster an innovative school-wide focus on literacy improvement, the state could engage multiple stakeholders in the cross-curricular selection of texts that would be on assessments the following year. By involving educators and the wider public in this process in partnership with the assessment vendor, greater focus, clarity, and transparency for what is taught and assessed would be cultivated. Furthermore, this could help level the playing field for students that need more exposure to the academic vocabulary and background knowledge required for comprehension of the selected texts and topics.

Step 4 Accountability for literacy assessments could then shift from resting solely on ELA departments to include other subjects, resisting the narrowing of curriculum that is so pervasive. One state, Louisiana, has already taken a bold step towards this by piloting assessments that blend social studies and ELA, and which assesses books that kids have actually studied, rather than random passages.

Such measures signal to schools that teaching literacy is the responsibility of a team, and can do much to counteract the prevailing headwinds of narrow and shallow test prep.

Anticipated Outcomes

What could we expect as a result of these moves?

Let’s consider a school representative of our current situation.

MS 900 is a public middle school in an urban district. The school has an alternating schedule for reading and writing, using two separate and unaligned ELA curriculum. The ELA teachers complain about the complexity of the writing program and the lack of professional development. Students complain about boring instruction. Grade-level ELA and math teams meet two times per week, and the social studies and science teams meet once per week. According to the state’s teacher evaluation system and testing data, the instructional quality varies widely across the school, with a few effective teachers, two highly effective teachers, and the rest developing.

Step 1 At a district meeting, the MS 900 staff learned about a new state initiative where the expectation would be that a whole school should work together to teach literacy, and that tests will reflect this. The administrators and teachers considered how schedules would need to change to provide opportunities for cross-curricular teams to meet regularly to discuss and plan for this new conception of literacy.

Step 2 Grade-level teams at MS 900 were rescheduled to meet 3 times a week, and each departmental team 1 time a week. The school’s support organization introduced protocols for teams to share and discuss the content and practices currently used across different classrooms. Grade-level teams also examined student work and discussed common approaches to targeting student literacy needs. Meanwhile, the ELA department determined that reading literature and writing narratives and poetry had been too long neglected, and discussed with their grade-level teams how strategies for reading and writing informational texts could be shared across the grade. The SS and science departments highlighted strategies specific to their subjects, while sharing topics and themes that could be developed across the the grade. The teachers who had more effective practices began to be recognized by their colleagues for their expertise, and other teachers requested to visit their classrooms to learn.

Step 3 When the new state survey for text selection opened up in the next year, both grade-level and departmental teams discussed which texts and topics were critical for meeting state standards, for teaching their students about the world, and for providing texts and topics that were relevant and engaging. Each team came to a consensus and submitted their selections. When the state published the texts, teachers were excited to see some of their choices reflected on the list, as well as to be introduced to new literary and nonfiction texts they hadn’t read yet but that were highly rated. Teams began planning how they would incorporate study of the selected texts into their shared curriculum.

Step 4 After two years of this process, when the state introduced new accountability measures for schools based on literacy results that bear shared weighting by ELA, social studies, and science teachers, MS 900 teachers felt prepared for the challenge, and were even eager to view the results and item analysis so they could figure out how they could work together to improve their students’ literacy abilities. Imagine that.

References

1 Cambridge Assessment (2013) “What is literacy? An investigation into definitions of English as a subject and the relationship between English, literacy and ‘being literate’: A Research Report Commissioned by Cambridge Assessment.” http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/130433-what-is-literacy-an-investigation-into-definitions-of-english-as-a-subject-and-the-relationship-between-english-literacy-and-being-literate-.pdf

2 Wexler, N. (2018) “Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/04/-american-students-reading/557915/
Serino, L. (2017) “What international assessment scores reveal about American education.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2017/04/07/what-international-assessment-scores-reveal-about-american-education/

3 Shanahan, T. (2013) “You Want Me to Read What?!” Educational Leadership, ASCD. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov13/vol71/num03/You-Want-Me-to-Read-What%C2%A2!.aspx

4 King, K.V. and Zucker, S. (2005) “Curriculum Narrowing – Pearson Assessments.” 18 Aug. 2005, http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/tmrs_rg/CurriculumNarrowing.pdf

5 Workman, E. and Jones, S.D. (2016) “ESSA’s Well-Rounded Education.” Education Commission of the States. https://www.ecs.org/essas-well-rounded-education/

6 Kaufman, J., Lindsay, T., and V. Darleen Opfer. (2016) “Creating a Coherent System to Support Instruction Aligned with State Standards: Promising Practices of the Louisiana Department of Education.” The Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1613.html
Kaufman, J. & Tsai, T. (2018). “School Supports for Teachers’ Implementation of State Standards Findings from the American School Leader Panel.” The Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2318.html

7 Whitehurst, G.J. (2009) “Don’t forget curriculum.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/dont-forget-curriculum/
Chingos, M. M., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2012) “Choosing blindly: Instructional materials, teacher effectiveness, and the Common Core.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/choosing-blindly-instructional-materials-teacher-effectiveness-and-the-common-core/ Kane, T. J. (2016) “Never judge a book by its cover – use student achievement instead.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover-use-student-achievement-instead/ Steiner, D. (2017) “Curriculum research: What we know and where we need to go.” StandardsWork, https://standardswork.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/sw-curriculum-research-report-fnl.pdf Chiefs for Change (2018) “Statement on the need for high-quality curriculum.” http://chiefsforchange.org/statement-on-the-need-for-high-quality-curricula/

8 International Baccalaureate (2014) “Programme standards and practices.” https://www.ibo.org/globalassets/publications/become-an-ib-school/programme-standards-and-practices-en.pdf

9 Louisiana Department of Education (2018) “Louisiana Essa Innovative Assessment Pilot First To Receive Federal Approval.” https://www.louisianabelieves.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/07/27/louisiana-essa-innovative-assessment-pilot-first-to-receive-federal-approval.

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Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part II

In my last post, way back in August (things got busy!), we examined the problem of incoherency in literacy instruction, and I proposed the following hypothesis:

If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.

So how can a school come to a clearer understanding of what they teach, how they will teach it, and a rationale and vision for literacy?

Define What You Want Kids to Know and Be Able to Do

A good place to start is for a school to define what knowledge and skills they believe children should walk out of their building equipped with when they graduate. And by define, I mean truly define discretely, not simply generate a set of feelgood statements like, “I want kids to be lifelong learners and passionate, independent readers who have 21st century learning skills. .  .”

A hearty chunk of skills are already defined by state standards (which was already contentious enough of a process) but due to the decentralized nature of American schools, as well as a strong anti-intellectual current, there’s reluctance to define the content–in the form of topics or texts–that students should study.

And so here we are, like I said in my last post, in the situation wherein parents and the wider public have nary a clear what is actually taught in most public school classrooms.

I think that much of this is attributable to confusion between knowledge and skills. Some school officials, if challenged, will point to state standards and say, “There’s what we teach.” But standards are relatively abstract goals composed of various strands of skills wrapped together. They require significant work on the educator’s part to “unpack” in order to break them down into more concrete subskills and targets for learning.

But even then, you’ll still be missing a critical component of literacy.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’ve broken down the third grade Common Core reading literature standard which states, “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.” You’ve broken down the ability to meet this standard into a few subskills, such as, “I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text” (look familiar? This is from my post on scaffolding a while back!).

That would be a typical “learning target” in a classroom. But there’s a key element missing: Which text? What details?

Because that’s really where the rubber hits the road. We pretend academic literacy can be developed from an isolated set of skills, but vocabulary and background knowledge are a critical component of literacy. And academic vocabulary and knowledge are built cumulatively from the study of related texts and topics over time.

Knowledge vs. Skills

Knowledge and skills are not the same thing, and it’s important to be able to delineate them. They exist on different planes, but they share a point at which they converge.

Here’s a little graphic I came up with to demonstrate their convergence and differentiation:

The Roadmap to Literacy V2

Where lies the point of convergence between literacy knowledge and skills? It lies in the texts that students read.

Do the texts cumulatively build knowledge of key topics and themes? Or are they happenstance and scattered, dependent on the teacher?

This is why you’ll hear literacy experts talk about the importance of “text sets” that focus on key topics and themes. This is how academic vocabulary and knowledge is built.

Speaking of “experts,” I had an extended dialogue with an author and professional development facilitator who claimed that rather than two strands, like the one above, that there are in fact three strands, or “three dimensions” of learning: concepts, facts, and skills. She and I went back and forth about whether and how conceptual knowledge is distinguished from factual knowledge. Rather than refer me to research or other verified sources, she would just tell me that I needed to read her book. Color me skeptical.

Maybe she’s right, but I ain’t reading her book (unless she sends me a free copy. Then, maybe). But I figured I should put it out there in case you do find that distinction useful.

I’ll stop there for this already overlong post. There’s a heck of a lot more to dive into. But I’m hoping that even just drawing that line between knowledge and skills might help you to redefine how you talk about literacy in your school. Do your students have text sets available to them that build knowledge around key topics and themes that they can use to practice and apply key literacy skills more independently? Has your school defined key topics and themes?

Does the curriculum your school uses build knowledge around key topics and themes? Does it build it vertically across grades and horizontally across subjects? Or is it so heavily skills-based that it’s entirely unclear what texts are actually to be read?

Start there, and your school can begin to tackle the sticky problems of literacy at a much deeper level, and that approach can pay dividends in student learning over time.

 

Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part I

Identifying the problem

Why aren’t many students graduating from our schools ready to perform the reading and writing tasks demanded of them by a college or career?

Answers to this will vary widely, of course. Based on my own experience working in NYC schools, I suspect that at the core of this problem lies incoherency, and beginning with this post, I’m going to try to persuade you that this is an issue, as well as provide some ideas on what schools can do about it. BTW I’m not the only one who suspects incoherency is at the core of our educational woes: researchers like Anthony Bryk have been making this case.

Read the vision and mission statements of most schools and you’ll see it for yourself in the vague, fluffy proclamations that bear little meaning to the content of what is actually taught.

What is taught in most schools? Who knows? Good luck finding data on curriculum being used. Despite the moniker of “public,” most public schools make little effort to transparently communicate what curriculum they purchase or develop and use from year to year.

There are a few charter networks that now publish most of their curriculum online. Kudos to Success Academy, Match, and Achievement First. Apparently KIPP will also start sharing their content. New York and Louisiana have at least made quality curriculum freely available, though it’s unclear how many of their schools employ it. (If I’m missing any schools, public, private, or otherwise that are doing this, please share in the comments so I can include them.)

Why we need to change how we approach literacy instruction

Every year schools examine state test results, then set targets for supporting their students’ literacy development. But they typically fail to consider the actual curriculum students receive in their classrooms each and every day—the texts they read and the writing tasks they are expected to perform—and whether that curriculum coherently and intentionally fosters and reinforces the skills and knowledge considered most essential to future student success (more on which skills and knowledge in a future post).

Or, they substitute one curricular program for another, ready to adopt the “next new thing” despite substantial time invested in adapting and tailoring a curriculum. Or, they adopt multiple curricular programs that don’t align, then expect teachers to be able to interpret, synthesize, and implement them with little support nor time for collaborative planning.

This is a significant problem I see in many of the schools I work with, which happen to be the schools in the Bronx struggling the most. There are schools using both EngageNY’s Expeditionary Learning curriculum for the “reading” period, and Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s writing curriculum for the “writing” period. If you know anything about either curriculum, this is confounding, both from a teacher and a student standpoint. Students are receiving two unaligned approaches, most likely delivered poorly, and teachers are being asked to read through and understand and plan and implement two very dense and confusing narratives for every single lesson.

Teachers, for various reasons, but most especially due to nonsense like the aforementioned, choose to do their own thing, drawing lessons from test prep books or online sources willy nilly, without coming to a consensus as a department or school on what is most important to teach across grades and classrooms.

Gaining academic knowledge, language, and skills are not natural and require a structured and systematic core curriculum in order to ensure all students have plentiful opportunities to practice and master them at the level necessary to succeed in higher education or in a complex career. We know from decades of research on learning and cognition that in order to transfer an understanding of new concepts and skills into long-term memory and apply them in real-world contexts, students require repeated exposures to those concepts and skills, spaced out over time.

Yet in many schools, most especially those that serve disadvantaged communities, students are exposed to an incoherent mix of concepts and skills that ill prepare them for success in a competitive college or career.

The literacy department of a school should promote a coherent vision oriented around shared instructional concepts, practices, and content. By coming to a consensus on what is most essential for students to know and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, then designing backwards from those targets, the ELA team can build a backbone of coherency that will support literacy development across grades and classrooms.

A hypothesis

If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.

In my next post or two, I’ll lay out some ideas and processes that can help an ELA team to do this work.

Exciting things happening in Louisiana

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Don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but Louisiana Superintendent John White, despite great controversy, has been making strong leadership moves over in LA, writing smart op-eds, maintaining a clear focus on higher standards in the face of volatile political headwinds, working with innovative partners to develop online curriculum, and pulling teachers together to conduct thorough reviews of curricular options according to LA state standards (I wrote a little more about how their reviews compare against EdReports here.)

And now, White is continuing to steer Louisiana on the path to meaningful reform with a proposal to pilot a new form of assessment that recognizes the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. These assessments will do so by merging social studies and ELA texts and units throughout the course of a year. Here’s his explanation:

“Rather than administering separate social studies and English tests at the end of the year, Louisiana schools participating in the pilot will teach short social studies and English curriculum units in tandem over the course of the year, pausing briefly after each unit to assess students’ reading, writing and content knowledge. Students, teachers and parents will know the knowledge and books covered on the tests well in advance. Knowledge of the world and of specific books will be measured as a co-equal to students’ literacy skills. And teachers would have good reason to focus on the hard and inspiring lessons of history and books.”

This type of assessment is something I’ve been dreaming about for years, and that former NY State Commissioner and current Executive Director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, David Steiner, has been talking about for years. At a Research ED conference back in September, I had a chance to chat with Steiner about this a little bit. It’s not a topic that non-wonkish education people seem to care about, but he is also passionate about this issue, and it’s really nice to see that this might finally get a chance to get “tested” by a state.

Too bad NY couldn’t get itself together to make this happen first.

Here’s a short video I had made about ideas for successful implementation of the Common Core standards back in 2014 in which I also make the case that all teachers on a grade-level should be held accountable by literacy assessments:

States don’t measure what kids actually know. That needs to change. John White / The Hill

 

The Symbiosis Between Scaffolding and Differentiation

A while back I wrote a long post redefining scaffolds and examining their connection to success criteria.

I then wrote a post drawing a distinction between scaffolds and differentiation, and I cast some shade on differentiation.

But I’m no longer quite as opposed to differentiation, and I can now see how there can be a strong symbiosis between scaffolding and differentiation.

I’ve been working with a school in the Bronx where we’ve been talking a lot about these concepts, and they’ve helped me to think a little more deeply. So I figured it would be worth sharing my updated learning.

Why it’s important

Teachers are often criticized by school and district leaders for not “differentiating” enough, yet rarely provided any clear guidance on how to do so. And there’s furthermore a lot of vagueness out there in the field on the distinctions between scaffolding and differentiation.

I want to share my revised thinking on the connection between the two concepts in the hope that I can help to clarify, rather than muddy, the use of these terms.

Here’s a visual model of how I now view scaffolds and differentiation:

Scaffolding = Steps

As students practice a skill or develop knowledge of a concept, their ability and understanding increases in complexity. A master teacher breaks down a skill or concept into smaller components, all the way down to the most basic and fundamental level, so that students can accelerate up the ladder towards mastery (just as jump school recruits do with a parachute landing fall).

Those sequential steps are the scaffolds.

Scaffolding, therefore, requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught (content/skills).

Differentiation = Where each student is on those steps and what they need to progress

Differentiation, on the other hand, requires a teacher to know their individual students well enough to know what each student requires at every step on their trajectory towards mastery, and where they are on that trajectory.

Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each of their individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

Distinguishing between Scaffolds and Differentiation

  • Scaffolding is aligned to a concept or skill.
  • Differentiation is aligned to the individual student.
  • Scaffolds are the sequential steps that lead to mastery of a skill or a deeper understanding of a concept.
  • Differentiation is in what manner and how much time a student may need to practice or review a step, as well as how much feedback may need to be provided.
  • Scaffolding requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught.
  • Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

The two thus work in tandem.

A sidenote on how all this relates to personalized learning

This brings out something interesting about the edtech industry’s drive for “personalized learning.” The concept of personalized learning arguably aligns most strongly with differentiation.

What is not frequently discussed is that in order to personalize something, you must first define that “something” and break it into its component parts. How you do this and the decisions you make and the feedback you provide are just as important as matching that content to a student’s needs.

In other words, whenever you hear about personalized learning, ignore the inspirational student-centered rhetoric and home in on the content itself. What platform or curriculum is being used? What trajectory is presented by that content? Does this trajectory align with widely respected standards or guidance from national or international professional organizations.

Definitions and Characteristics

Scaffolding

Definition

A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.

Characteristics

  • Smaller, sequential components of a complex concept, task, or skill
  • Requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, a scaffold isn’t about making something “easier” for students
  • Must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along or have a scaffold removed until they have demonstrated mastery of each component
  • Doubles as performance-based formative assessment

Differentiation

Definition

Differentiation provides an individual student with the targeted practice or thinking, and with the necessary feedback, in order to progress towards defined learning goals.

Characteristics

  • Adjustments in environment, content, process, or product to account for an individual student’s current level of knowledge, ability, or interest
  • Based on the trajectory of scaffolding for the current topic or unit of study
  • Requires the teacher to be deeply aware of an individual student’s needs and current level of performance
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, differentiation isn’t about making something “easier” for the student

You’ll notice that there is a key characteristic that is shared between these two: neither are about making something easier for a student — they are both about moving learners closer to mastery of whatever it is that they are practicing and studying.

This is important because unfortunately there is a strong tendency by educators to deem some students as incapable of achieving mastery of success in academic learning.

But what is most often the case is that the educator doesn’t know what they are teaching well enough in order to provide specific and targeted supports for their students.

There’s still a lot more to dig into on this topic — specifically how it relates to formal education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. But I think this is more than enough for one post!

Please push back on any of this to help me further clarify and refine my thinking on scaffolding and differentiation.