A High Quality ELA Block

In my last post (yeah, it’s been a long time. I don’t get paid for these, you know), I made the case for the importance of phonics instruction, while acknowledging it should be just about 30 minutes a day in the early grades. But I also pointed out that the quality of that 30 minutes can be highly variable.

Even when you have a program that sequences phonics instruction systematically and explicitly, it needs to be acknowledged that this is only a small part of what is on most teachers’ plates each day. Kindergarten – 2nd grade teachers usually teach most core subjects, and may be drawing upon a panoply of programs they are supposed to be experts in, while managing a bunch of young homo sapiens who have not yet fully developed a prefrontal cortex and the ability to regulate their emotions and behavior. It’s exhausting, to say the least.

Another important thing to bear in mind is that delivery of foundational literacy is what we could call high density. There is a fair amount that needs to be packed into that 30 minutes, if it’s being done right. So it’s unsurprising that if a teacher has not been directly trained on the program itself, or does not have any previous background on foundational literacy and the importance of skills like phonemic and morphological awareness and spelling and handwriting that phonics is most likely delivered haphazardly.

And this is all without mentioning what I discussed in the previous post–that even when there is a phonics program in place, if it is then directly contradicted by the core ELA program used (e.g. Really Great Reading followed by TCRWP and F&P), it can be a confusing experience for teachers and students alike. Thankfully, it seems our field is moving away from that kind of disconnected and shallow instruction.

While from afar you may think that teaching foundational literacy skills should be basic, in actuality, it can be even more challenging to know how to teach because it is the kind of knowledge that becomes automatic and subconscious once acquired. As a fluent reader, you don’t consciously think about what it took to learn to read words in print. But can you explain the distinction between digraphs and diphthongs? Can you provide examples of derivational and inflectional morphemes? Heck, why don’t you just give me a refresh on the difference between open and closed syllables, then? See, it’s actually quite technical and non-intuitive the closer you get to it. There are ongoing debates between literacy nerds about speech-to-print vs print-to-speech methods, or between teaching patterns vs syllable types. This is not as simple as one might think given that it is “foundational.”

With all that said about the importance of a high quality 30 minutes of foundational literacy, let’s return to the equal importance of that daily core ELA block, which is where I had landed in the last post:

A strong, high quality ELA block should include the writing, shared reading, and read-alouds so important to gaining fluency, building language and knowledge, and peer interaction to explore multiple perspectives.

What does that look like?

It looks like daily textual feasts for engaging young intellects in topics that get them interested and curious, while building their vocabulary, language, and literacy. A high volume of texts at multiple levels read, listened to, written, discussed, and savored each and every day, across subjects.

Here’s my stab at outlining what this means in the form of spiffy looking table: spiffy table of reading a variety of texts

A large volume and wide reading of texts at multiple levels: dialogic, interactive read-alouds of texts well above grade-level to build knowledge and language; shared readings of texts aligned to phonics scope and sequences and at grade-level to practice and build oral reading fluency at the word and sentence-levels; small group interactive readings at grade and instructional levels; and opportunities for independent reading at a variety of levels based on interest and ability. This is what engaging students in daily textual feasts is all about!

Various current curricula do this to varying degrees. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and overall, our field has advanced remarkably in the availability of a high quality ELA curriculum in the last decade. One I have looked at that arguably best demonstrates what I just described, IMHO, is Bookworms. You can view it and download it for free and decide for yourself. There’s even some empirical evidence of its efficacy.

I’ve done some of my own curriculum work along these lines when I worked with a small team during the pandemic to draw upon freely available ReadWorks.org texts and resources to develop lessons (available on TeachHub if you work in NYC Public Schools) for “Stand-alone ENL” instruction (small group instruction for students newer to the English language). We took what ReadWorks calls “Article-A-Day” texts, which are short read-alouds, then paired them by topic with grade-level texts. We engineered the texts digitally to be more accessible with chunking, visuals, targeted prompts, and other scaffolds, and the same grade-level texts were to be read over multiple days, digging deeper into the meaning at the sentence and paragraph-level while practicing oral reading fluency–and while pairing with different aligned Article-A-Day read-alouds each day. Over the course of a week, students heard, read, spoke, and wrote words and sentences aligned to rich and interesting content but in varying forms.

Reading and re-reading the same short passages might be useful to a degree, as with paired reading fluency practice, but wide reading with listening and fluency practice, in which different short texts are read that share common language, exposes children to greater variation of language, while repeating similar vocabulary and concepts.

This balance of explicit instruction and practice, alongside implicit and cumulative exposure, is the holy grail of literacy and language. It’s why so many people have been stressing the importance of “text sets” for years now. Reading, talking, and writing about shared topics that are thoughtfully spaced and sequenced builds knowledge and language. Yes, genre knowledge is important, too, but it’s been oversold and overplayed.

Our tendency is always to simplify things for kids, thinking that we are overwhelming them. But we aren’t overwhelming them if we build knowledge and language coherently across multiple texts on the same topic using consistent routines and practices. As we read and listen to and talk and write about these shared texts and topics, we are focusing our kids’ attention on what knowledge is important, and on specific recurring patterns and constructions of language at the word, sentence, and text and discourse-levels. We analyze how authors choose their words and craft their sentences and texts, and provide practice with those words, patterns, and constructions. We see, listen to, speak, and write the words and sentences that hone our understanding into greater depth and precision. We consider, critique, and consume multiple perspectives. We talk about how we are talking about the texts, building our metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness.

This rich literary and language work must happen simultaneous to foundational work in the earliest grades, and it continues and deepens through to college. Read-alouds and shared reading do not only need to live in elementary school, either – there is always a place for them in any subject.

In K-2 grades (really we should be thinking preK-3) a strong ELA block lives alongside that high quality, high density 30 minutes of foundational literacy instruction. Bring the reading rope together!

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