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Here's What States Can Do to Truly Boost Student Literacy
Some states are incentivizing schools to teach systematic phonics AND build kids' academic knowledge and vocabulary.
Unlike most other developed countries, the United States leaves decisions about curriculum to local school districts—and often to principals and even individual teachers. Especially in the area of reading, the result has been instruction that doesn’t work for many students. One reason is that teachers often don’t have time to find or create good materials. Another is that during their training, most educators have absorbed beliefs that contradict what science has discovered about how people learn to read—and how they learn in general.
With reading, a big problem is that the standard approach to teaching children to sound out words, or “decode,” isn’t systematic enough for many kids. Quite a few states have passed legislation requiring that teacher training and curriculum materials follow the “science of reading,” which is often seen as centering on decoding skills.
But decoding is only one part of the issue. An even more widespread and better hidden aspect is the standard approach to teaching comprehension, which focuses on “skills” like “making inferences,” divorced from any particular content. As scientists have known for decades, reading comprehension depends far more on knowledge—either of the topic or of general academic vocabulary—than on abstract skills. Children of more highly educated parents are better able to pick up academic vocabulary at home, but others depend on school for that.
The most effective way to ensure all kids will have the vocabulary to understand what they’re expected to read at higher grade levels is to begin immersing them in a knowledge-building curriculum early, while they’re still learning to decode.
An effective literacy curriculum will:
· spend at least two or three weeks on a topic, going beyond fiction to include social studies and/or science content;
· provide all students with access to complex text through read-alouds rather than limiting them to text they can decode themselves;
· guide teachers to ask questions about the texts’ content that establish literal comprehension and also require analysis;
· follow a logical sequence of topics through the school year and across grades;
· and ensure that students are engaging in listening, speaking, reading, and writing activities that all center on the same content.
A few states have gone beyond decoding instruction to also focus on encouraging schools to switch to a curriculum that builds knowledge. While none has mandated a particular curriculum, they have provided information about materials that are likely to work and incentives for schools to use them.
New York was in the vanguard in 2011, putting what may have been the first knowledge-building literacy curriculum online as a freely available “open educational resource,” or OER, along with a math curriculum. By 2017, those materials were among the most commonly used across the country. Now there are perhaps half a dozen knowledge-building literacy curricula, with several available as OERs.
More recently, other states have taken different approaches. In addition to creating its own OER literacy curriculum beginning in 2013, Louisiana has established a rating system for other curricula and made it easier for districts to purchase those that build knowledge. Tennessee has a rating system and has done lots of outreach to districts. Crucially, both states have worked to ensure that educators get effective, ongoing support in implementing the new curricula, and both have seen a high degree of uptake. The most recent state to join this trend is Texas.
Like New York, Texas is making curricula freely available online to districts, schools, individual teachers, and parents—and the subjects covered go beyond reading and math. Some of the curricula have been developed from scratch, while others have been adapted to align with Texas’s academic standards. For elementary literacy, the state contracted with a company called Amplify to create a Texas-specific version of its knowledge-building curriculum, including Spanish-language versions of all materials. The effort is part of the state’s response to the challenges of remote learning during the pandemic: the materials are designed to be used for remote and hybrid as well as face-to-face instruction.
To focus on Texas history and culture, Amplify created several new units. For example, a fifth-grade unit revolves around Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery that has its origins in Galveston. A third-grade unit on jazz includes material on Texas musicians. Other tweaks were made to align the curriculum to Texas academic standards, such as a unit covering cursive writing in third grade.
The curriculum appears to be popular. LaShon Ormond, head of humanities curricula at Amplify, says the response to an initial pilot program was “overwhelmingly positive.” So far, 210 of the 1,200 school districts in Texas have used state grants to purchase print versions of the online Amplify materials, according to Lily Laux, Deputy Commissioner of School Programs at the Texas Education Agency.
The advantage of free curriculum is that it’s available to anyone—wealthy districts, poor districts, individual teachers, and parents. But that can also be a disadvantage. A good curriculum is designed to be implemented as a coherent whole, but teachers often pick and choose lessons or units, and they may be more likely to do that with materials available online. They may also lack the training needed to adopt an approach that is radically different from what they’re used to.
Texas is minimizing that risk by offering grants to districts that cover training grounded in the specifics of the curriculum. To date, 146 districts are getting that kind of support, and Ormond says the level of “professional learning” Texas is providing is far higher than usual.
Another possible pitfall—and one that has been particularly obvious lately—is political controversy over curriculum content generally. Some on the right have been calling for “curriculum transparency”—requiring schools to make their materials public—to prevent what they consider indoctrination. An online, freely available curriculum is by definition transparent. And Texas has been the scene of curriculum battles not only in recent months but also a decade ago, when a state-sponsored collection of online lesson plans was dropped after conservative activists raised objections.
But the current effort hasn’t drawn significant political pushback, perhaps because the curriculum is transparent. One of the complaints a decade ago was that the online lesson plans couldn’t be accessed by parents. Now, they can.
The results of a knowledge-building literacy curriculum often aren’t apparent overnight, at least as reflected in standardized reading test scores. But there’s growing evidence that this approach works. If other states are interested in raising literacy rates—especially for their most vulnerable students—they would do well to keep a close eye on what Texas is doing.
This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on Forbes.com.