Rarely a week goes by when questions aren’t raised about the structure of the EL Education curriculum, which the Fort Madison Community School District adopted in the fall of 2019 for grades K – 5, and the fall of 2020 for grades 6 – 8. The questions go something like this: “Why do we have to spend so much time on one topic?” “Why do we spend eight weeks on fossils?” “How can I keep my students interested in trees for so long?” Just this morning, I read a lengthy post on an Open Up Resources/EL Education Facebook group questioning this very thing: “Why spend so long on one topic?” Full disclosure: three years ago, my voice would have joined the chorus. Now, I can (somewhat) easily answer these questions by turning to the work of Natalie Wexler. Wexler is an education writer, and much like APM journalist Emily Hanford, has a lot to say about the state of literacy instruction in our country.
A Focus on Skills
For a long time (perhaps 40 years or more), American schools have focused on teaching reading comprehension skills, such as main idea, compare and contrast, making inferences, drawing conclusions, summarizing, and visualizing. I can testify to this trend by looking at the stacks of materials (binders, posters, and notebooks) that I have stored away in my attic since leaving the classroom three years ago to become a literacy instructional coach. If you had told me then that my job as an instructional coach would be anything other than supporting teachers in building a love for reading in their students while improving their instruction around reading skills like the above mentioned, I would have called you a liar.
In Wexler’s 2019 article “Elementary Education has Gone Terribly Wrong,” featured in The Atlantic, she explains that “American elementary education has been shaped by a theory that goes like this: Reading—a term used to mean not just matching letters to sounds but also comprehension—can be taught in a manner completely disconnected from content. Use simple texts to teach children how to find the main idea, make inferences, draw conclusions, and so on, and eventually they’ll be able to apply those skills to grasp the meaning of anything put in front of them.” This is a theory that I fully embraced. I firmly believed that I was serving my students well by providing materials on a wide range of topics while hammering away at applying reading skills, usually with a focus on one skill for a week, before moving onto the next skill. The topics covered in that week or so of instruction often varied widely, even from one day to the next. My belief was that through exposure to many topics with a laser-focus on reading skills, my students were walking away as ” jacks of many trades.” They would have knowledge of many topics, and their focus on skills could be applied to any topic. It makes sense, but when compared to an approach that is focused on content over skills, it quickly erodes.
I shudder to think of the materials that I gathered in the last 15 years to use with my students around reading instruction. It was (and is) easy to turn to the internet to find materials on any topic. Teachers Pay Teachers is a hotspot for materials organized by hard-working teachers who have tried and tested their self-created materials. Like the topics I covered with my students, such materials are randomly organized. They serve as supplements to an existing curriculum (something which many school districts lack), but should not be relied on for the basis of instruction. There is much to be said for a vetted curriculum that has a clear scope and sequence, across grade levels, containing sequential and explicit instructional materials.
A Focus on Content
In 2000, the National Reading Panel released a report of their findings. The findings indicated that it was absolutely imperative that literacy instruction include systematic and explicit instruction around phonemic awareness and phonics. This is one of the best findings that came out of the report, although districts continue to drag their feet when it comes to adopting curriculum that does just what the panel suggested. One of the negative effects of the National Reading Panel’s findings was the focus on teaching reading skills, rather than content. Natalie Wexler expands on this idea in her book The Knowledge Gap, a MUST read. According to Wexler, “After the release of the report, the number of teacher-training programs that included courses on reading comprehension skills and strategies ballooned, rising from 15 percent in 2006 to 75 percent ten years later.” No wonder I approached reading instruction the way I did.
In 2010, the Common Core literacy standards were released, which didn’t necessarily help the situation. In an effort to prepare American students to be college and career ready, the Common Core standards place a heavy emphasis on nonfiction (exposure for young children should be 50%, increasing to 70% by high school), as they should. What the common core doesn’t provide is the how to reach proficiency around their high (and might I say, appropriate) standards. As a result of their release, teachers knew they needed to expose their students to more complex text and writing tasks, but didn’t have the materials or knowledge of the necessary scaffolds and supports to lead their students to success with the complexity.
Nonfiction generally demands more background knowledge, something that students from low-income families lack at a much greater percentage than their peers who come from wealthier families. This has created an even wider gap than already existed between the “have’s” and the “have-nots.” Those students who are poor continue to fall further behind because of their lack of access to richer vocabulary, language acquisition, and knowledge. In The Atlantic article (and in The Knowledge Gap), Wexler explains, “This snowballing has been dubbed “the Matthew effect,” after the passage in the Gospel according to Matthew about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Every year that the Matthew Effect is allowed to continue, it becomes harder to reverse. So the earlier we start building children’s knowledge, the better our chances of narrowing the gap.”
Timothy Shanahan weighs in on the topic, with a slightly different slant (don’t let the title deceive you), in this blog post Why Doesn’t Increasing Knowledge Improve Reading Achievement: “Building knowledge may – over a sufficiently long period of time – improve one’s reading. In addition to those explicit reading lessons, let’s encourage and support the development of knowledge. If these efforts aren’t allowed to elbow sound reading instruction aside, they cannot hurt and, in the long run, they might even help. In any event, whether these knowledge increases improve reading comprehension or not, they definitely offer other important benefits (knowing social studies and science can help us live better lives)….We also should make sure that there are opportunities to gain knowledge from the texts we use for reading instruction. Why read about nothing and why treat such content as nothing? Yes, we want kids to get reading practice in their lessons and we want them to extend their reading skills, but let’s be as assiduous about the learning of content from those texts as we are about mastering the skills.”
In an attempt to level the playing field, if we provide all students with a focus on content and building knowledge, we are putting all students in a position to excel. When we focus on one topic over a long period of time, we equip students with the power to dig deep into a topic, becoming researchers that are steeped in the rich vocabulary that comes with such deep dives. We equip our students with the ability to tackle complex text by, at times, reading it aloud to them, teaching them what it looks like to return to that text multiple times, each with a different purpose, each with the goal of gaining a better understanding of the topic.
As Wexler states in The Atlantic article “…all students grapple with the same texts…” At the same time, we are addressing the 3 Shifts addressed in the Common Core (from Achieve the Core): “1. Complexity: Practice regularly with complex text and its academic language. 2. Evidence: Ground reading, writing, and speaking in evidence from text, both literary and informational. 3. Knowledge: Build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.”
As questions about the length of time spent on one topic continue to be posed (skepticism is not necessarily a bad thing, and should even be encouraged), may we embrace a spirit of understanding rather than a spirit of doing what we’ve always done because it’s comfortable. May we listen to the voices of the experts in the fields of both journalism and reading instruction (Hanford, Wexler, and Shanahan among many others.)
As a district, may we continue to learn from our amazing Open Up Resources Community Coaches: Justin Endicott, Ciera Searcy, Sarah Said, and Teacher Leader in Residence, Morgan Stipe, who offer opportunities to better understand and implement the EL Education curriculum at bi-weekly PLC meetings.
Centering reading instruction around building content knowledge over focusing on skills instruction requires a major change in thinking and approach (I have much to say about change in this post: Change, Fear, and Self-Reflection). I would argue it’s a change we can’t afford to avoid. Our kids can’t wait for us to overcome our discomfort with this change. For. The. Kids. (Right, Corrine???)