Editor’s note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently launched “The Acceleration Imperative,” an open-source, evidence-based resource designed to aid instructional leaders’ efforts to address the enormous challenges faced by their students, families, teachers, and staff over the past year. It comprises four chapters split into nineteen individual topics. Over the coming weeks, we will publish each of these as a standalone blog post. This is the seventh. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.
Literacy is the bedrock of every elementary school and should be the number-one priority for post-pandemic educational recovery. A high-quality elementary curriculum imparts essential foundational skills in early reading and uses rich, engaging, and culturally responsive literary and informational texts. This allows students to build background knowledge of the world as they learn to read and draw meaning from print—a critical component of literacy instruction. Students need systematic foundational skills instruction, as well as a strong vocabulary and wide exposure to academic content.
However, identifying such curricula can be difficult, as research identifying the effectiveness of specific programs is fraught with challenges. For example, the fidelity of implementation varies, and comparisons with control groups are hard to come by. Still, the best English language arts (ELA) curricula embed practices that have been validated by rigorous research and are grounded in the science of reading. In addition, independent curriculum reviews such as those by EdReports, which rates quality based on alignment to college- and career-ready standards, can provide important information about a variety of programs.
In the discussion below, we focus on three considerations for elementary ELA curriculum selection and implementation: the science of reading, standards alignment, and design that gives all students access to grade-level content. We explore how this can be done, and these high-impact elements play out in an exemplar curriculum from EL Education.
- Select and implement a high-quality, comprehensive curriculum that is grounded in the science of reading, rich in content, rigorous, culturally relevant, and includes strong teacher-facing materials. We are particularly fond of EL Education, which has earned high ratings from EdReports in grades K–8 and was found effective in a 2013 Mathematica study.
- Give all students the good stuff—appropriately complex texts that align to grade-level standards, by providing struggling readers with the necessary scaffolding and supports.
- Invest staff in the adaptation and roll out of new curricula, including any modifications needed to address learning loss.
- Build in regular time for teachers to engage in curriculum study as part of collaborative planning and professional learning.
The Science of Reading
The “science of reading” is a relatively new buzz phrase for a body of research that has existed for decades. In 2000, the National Reading Panel reviewed the evidence and identified five elements of effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics skills, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Despite the panel’s clear consensus that systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics for all children was the most effective approach to teaching word-level reading, resistance to that message has continued among many educators and within teacher-training programs. Meanwhile, fluency has often been misinterpreted to simply mean speed, when in fact it refers to reading at a grade-appropriate pace and with appropriate expression. Lack of fluency, which has been called the “bridge” between foundational skills and comprehension, is often the hidden cause of reading difficulties at upper grade levels.
The remaining two elements—vocabulary and comprehension—depend largely on the expansion of children’s knowledge. Direct vocabulary instruction is important, especially with regard to words that appear frequently in academic writing, but it can’t provide children with all the words they need to become competent readers. The vast majority of working vocabulary comes not from explicit word study or memorization, but repeated exposure to new words in print or spoken language. “Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading,” E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has observed. Broad general knowledge across subjects provides the “gist” to which Hirsch refers. It’s the key to vocabulary growth and language proficiency, and particularly critical for disadvantaged children and English learners.
With comprehension, the National Reading Panel discussed only the evidence supporting instruction in certain strategies, omitting any mention of the voluminous evidence that knowledge of the topic is a key factor in comprehension. As a result, many educators wrongly concluded that instructing students in “skills and strategies” was sufficient to build their comprehension.
Alignment to College- and Career-Ready Standards
At their core, college- and career-ready ELA standards require:
- Strong grounding in foundational reading skills—phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency.
- Exposing all students to increasingly complex texts.
- Close reading of these complex texts.
- Reading more informational texts.
- Building background knowledge by reading broadly and diving more deeply into content.
- Growing academic vocabulary and syntax.
- Speaking and writing grounded in evidence from texts.
While there are curricula specifically developed with these elements in mind, a 2019 report by the nonprofit organization EdReports estimated that only 16 percent of school districts are using such ELA curricula in their elementary schools.
Research demonstrates the imperative for building students’ background knowledge and vocabulary. Elementary schools’ ELA curricula should work to systematically build knowledge and vocabulary across a wide variety of high-interest, culturally relevant texts, including those about history, geography, science, the arts, and more.
At lower grade levels, as students practice and build early reading skills and vocabulary, whether they know something about the topics in their ELA assignments can accelerate or slow their development. Children tasked with unfamiliar topics may experience early failure and learn to dislike reading, leading them to practice less and develop more slowly than their peers. This can determine how the “Matthew Effect,” the name used by cognitive scientist Keith Stanovich to describe the phenomenon wherein “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” in vocabulary and knowledge, plays out for them later on in school. This hazard looms even larger now, when so many students in poverty have not had access to in-person instruction or have struggled to learn remotely since school closures began.
Expanding Access to Challenging Material
Every student, including those with gaps in background knowledge or decoding skills, should be engaged with the curriculum’s rich, grade-level texts with appropriate scaffolding and support. This differs from the common practice of assigning struggling readers to “just right” texts, which limits their exposure to grade-level content. A commitment to this principle will not only build the knowledge and vocabulary so vital to literacy success, but also will communicate the high expectations we have for all students. And it will begin to inculcate the growth mindset and student agency that characterizes excellent elementary schools.
Providing all students with access to the same knowledge also promotes social-emotional well-being. It enables children who would otherwise be relegated to lower-level reading groups to contribute their insights to discussions, demonstrate their capabilities to their peers, and feel that they are full members of the classroom community.
Identifying Comprehensive, High-Quality Curriculum
When making a curriculum selection, a key priority should be on the comprehensiveness of the instructional materials. This suggests several things, including:
- There is a distinct strand of the curriculum focused on explicit and systematic instruction in foundational reading skills.
- The curriculum valorizes both text complexity, predominantly through read-aloud in the primary grades, and volume of reading, such as through extended independent reading time, to build knowledge and vocabulary.
- There is coherence in the presentation of topics in order to grow content knowledge. Units are organized by topic, and topics are explored deeply and build on one another sequentially over the school year and across grades. Reading and writing are integrated into science, social studies, music, and other content areas, rather than presented as atomized, skills-based activities.
- On-the-spot assessments and end-of-unit performance assessments are part of the curriculum and grounded in its content.
- Student-facing and teacher-facing materials are included.
Example: EL Education
EdReports has identified a handful of comprehensive, high-quality, knowledge-building, standards-aligned ELA curricula. We are particularly enthusiastic about EL English Language Arts, which was found to be effective in a 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research. We hold this curriculum in high regard for the following reasons:
- Its structure builds domain-specific vocabulary and Tier 2 academic vocabulary. Each grade is organized into four modules lasting eight weeks, organized around topics like water conservation, ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment, or athletes leading social change. These topics are highly appealing and use rich and engaging texts. Each module contains three units that focus first on knowledge building, then on reading, and then on writing.
- A separate “Skills Block” provides a complete foundational skills program using decodable texts and an aligned suite of assessments.
- It is specifically developed to support social-emotional learning and to meet the needs of English Learners.
- It is free and open source. While there are materials costs in implementation, including purchasing the trade books it uses, the curriculum can be accessed free of charge through many different online platforms, including EL Education, Open Up Resources, LearnZillion, and modEL Detroit, which provides school users lots of flexibility.
- The curriculum is highly educative. It explains pedagogical decisions throughout the materials, and includes strong teacher training content through a resource called “your curriculum companion.” Topics range from, “what makes a text worthy and compelling?” to “how will the curriculum empower my students to own their learning?”
- In 2019, EL Education entered into a partnership with CenterPoint Education Solutions to develop web-based, curriculum-aligned, K–8 interim assessments to mirror the curriculum’s scope and sequence and complement the existing formative assessments embedded in the curriculum. This allows teachers to clearly see what concepts students have mastered and which concepts require additional instruction or student practice.
- The ability to handle complex text is the distinguishing characteristic between students who go on to do well in college and work and those who don’t.
Adams, M., Wong Fillmore, L., Goldenberg, C., Oakhill, J., Paige, D., Rasinski, T., Shanahan, T. (2020). “Comparing Reading Research to Program Design: An Examination of Teachers College Units of Study.” Student Achievement Partners.
- Outlines how the Teachers College Units of Study ELA curriculum is not aligned to the Common Core, in particular due to its lack of attention to knowledge-building.
EdReports. (2019). “The State of the Instructional Materials Market – 2019 Report.”
Hanford, E. “Hard Words: Why Aren't Kids Being Taught to Read?” APM Reports, September 10, 2018.
Hanford, E. “At a Loss for Words: What’s Wrong with How Schools Teach Reading?” APM Reports, August 22, 2019.
Hanford, E. “What the Words Say: Many kids struggle with reading – and children of color are far less likely to get the help they need.” APM Reports, August 6, 2020.
- These radio documentaries explore why schools have not embraced the science of reading, the ways in which pseudoscientific ideas about literacy have influenced instruction, and the impact on disadvantaged students.
Hempenstall, K. (2003). The three-cueing system: Trojan horse? Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities. 8(2), 15-23.
- This study outlines a common yet non-research-backed instructional technique from Australia. The paper points to the pitfalls of how “unfounded but passionately held belief[s]” can have a detrimental impact on the teaching of reading.
Hirsch, E.D. (2006). The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Houghton Mifflin.
Kaufman, J., Thompson, L., and Opfer, V. D. (2016). “Creating a Coherent System to Support Instruction Aligned with State Standards: Promising Practices of the Louisiana Department of Education.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
- Describes the successes of the Louisiana Department of Education in promoting the use of high quality (and therefore content-rich) ELA materials.
Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. John Wiley & Sons.
- Describes the “three-cueing” system and paints a picture of how pseudoscience can come to take hold in educational practices.
Moats, L. (2000). “Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of ‘Balanced’ Reading Instruction.” Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
- Critiques the whole language and balanced literacy approach to teaching reading, and argues that the science around teaching reading points to systematic phonics instruction.
Nichols-Barrer, I. and Haimson, J. (2013). "Impacts of Five Expeditionary Learning Middle Schools on Academic Achievement," Mathematica Policy Research, Cambridge MA.
- Mathematica found stronger academic results in ELA (and also Math) for schools using EL Education’s (then called Expeditionary Learning) curricula.
Pikulski, J. and Chard, D. (2011). Fluency: Bridge Between Decoding and Reading Comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 58(6), 510-519.
Pimentel, Susan. “Why Doesn't Every Teacher Know the Research on Reading Instruction?” Education Week, October 26, 2018.
- Outlines the crucial role that building content knowledge plays in building literacy.
Polikoff, M., Wang, E., Haderlein, S., Kaufman, J., Woo, A., Silver, D., and Opfer, V.D. (2020). “Exploring Coherence in English Language Arts Instructional Systems in the Common Core Era.” Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License.
Rasinski, T. “Readers Who Struggle: Why Many Struggle and a Modest Proposal for Improving Their Reading.” The Reading Teacher, 70(5), 519-524.
Shanahan, T. (2019). Why Children Should be Taught to Read With More Challenging Texts. Perspectives on Language, Fall 2019.
- Debunks the research on the incorrect idea that children should be taught to read with leveled readers.
Shanahan, T. “New Evidence on Teaching Reading at Frustration Levels.” Shanahan on Literacy, May 28, 2017.
- Students make more progress in reading achievement when they read texts that are considered to be above their grade level.
Stanovich, K. (1986). Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. Reading Research Quarterly. 21(4), 360-407.
- Spells out the impact of the Matthew Effect on literacy acquisition. There are big implications for students’ long-term ELA achievement based on how much knowledge is or is not taught throughout their education.
Wexler, N. (2019). The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—And How to Fix It. Avery.
Willingham, D. “The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies,” American Educator, Winter 2006-07.
- Teaching reading comprehension strategies can be effective for literacy skills if they are taught briefly, with diminishing achievement returns for curricula that overplay the their importance.
Wren, S. (2002). “Ten Myths of Reading Instruction.” SEDL Letter. Southwest Educational Development Lab.
- Describes more ways in which non-evidence-backed ideas about teaching reading can have damaging effects.