Aligning Literacy Curriculum Across the District

Ideas
A rural district successfully aligned its literacy curriculum across grades and content areas amid a pandemic to improve student growth.
By: 
Michelle Robinette

Not long ago at Midlakes Schools, our teachers leaned on their own varied backgrounds and experiences that informed their approaches to teaching students to read and write. They aligned well with one another within each grade, but vertical alignment was more challenging.

Our rural district serves about 1,500 students, nearly half of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. We also have a growing population of English language learners. As we grappled with the disruptions caused by COVID-19, we realized that students would be better served by a unified approach to reading and writing that our teachers believed in and that extended throughout the grades. Refreshing a literacy curriculum in the middle of a pandemic may be nerve-wracking, but the transition has served our students well. Here are four keys to our success.

 

1) Getting the Team on Board Early

We began by creating a literacy skills committee, which took a two-pronged approach. First, they did some summer work focused on alignment strategies and best practices for literacy across content areas so that we could all, no matter what, teach from the same page.

We wanted something that would address foundational skills, such as phonemic awareness and phonics fluency. Many of our teachers had been trained on Wilson Reading, but it had been several years, and a lot of our teachers were just doing their own thing, combining elements piecemeal.

We adopted Reading Horizons for specific student populations because we believed it would bring all of our teachers and interventionists into alignment with one another quickly. We also emphasized phonics especially at the kindergarten level where they are introducing the letters. We needed to be sure that instruction was consistent from one year to the next, because sometimes it takes multiple years to catch students up, especially as they get older and may be multiple years behind expectations.

 

2) Reading Alignment for Content Areas, Too

Before we launched into our curricular refresh, we had taken a deep dive into possible reasons our math and English language arts achievement scores were not where we wanted them to be. One of the recommendations was to bring the language we used about writing into alignment throughout content areas beyond literacy.

If you walked into a science class, for example, they might tell students to make a claim and back it up with evidence, while their math teacher might ask them to make an argument and back it up with reasoning. “Claim” and “argument” meant essentially the same thing, as did “evidence” and “reasoning,” but the students didn’t necessarily know that.

This is more important for students in grades 7–12, but it was still a big part of bringing our younger students and their reading instruction into alignment throughout the district.

We’ve even gone further in standardizing our core literacy program for the new school year. This year, our kindergarten reading interventionist and teachers got together and decided what order they would introduce all the letters. Previously, an interventionist would have to switch things up depending upon which class the student he or she was currently working with had been in. Now, no matter what class the student is in, they will have covered the same letters.

 

3) Growing with the Research

As we were choosing curricula to adopt, so much progress was being made in the science of reading that many of the companies we considered were changing their products as we tried to make our decisions. It was imperative that we chose products that had evidence of success based in the science of reading.

It’s great that companies are committed to continual improvement, but it can be troublesome in terms of cost to constantly replace materials and time as teachers learn concepts and approaches, but it’s worth it to ensure we’re using evidence-based practices.

As educators, we’re never done growing and learning, and we certainly had to remind each other of that as we tried to take aim at a bit of a moving target.

 

4) Finding Flexible Technology to Meet a Variety of Needs

We were already a 1:1 district before the pandemic, and though we’re rural, we are not as rural as some districts I’ve worked in, where no amount of money could have secured some students Internet access. We did have to hand out some Wi-Fi hotspots, but for the most part our students had the hardware they needed to enable remote learning from the beginning of the pandemic.

Last school year, when we were doing a combination of hybrid and virtual learning, we were fortunate that we had online options—but if there’s anything we’ve all learned over the last year, it’s that there is just no replacing the art and science of educating that only an in-person teacher can provide.

Even though we returned to in-person learning for fall 2021, our interventionists have continued to find the online components of our literacy curriculum particularly helpful for personalized practice and as a resource for parents supporting students at home. Even in small groups, if two students are at the same level and a third is at another, we can set the first two up to practice exactly what they need on their iPad while the teacher works one-on-one with the other.

By focusing on alignment rooted in the science of reading throughout grades and across content areas, we’ve seen growth that has amazed our reading specialists, some of whom have more than 30 years of experience.

 

About the author

Michelle Robinette is the director of curriculum and instruction at Midlakes Schools in New York. She can be reached at mrobinette@midlakes.org.

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