Four Important Findings About Early Literacy

Supporting every student to become a strong reader and writer is one of the priorities in the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)’s new report, Excellence For All: How Tennessee Can Lift Our Students To Best In The Nation, that sets a collaborative vision for student achievement to continue over the next eight years.

This priority is directly informed by the work of Leading Innovation for Tennessee Education (LIFT), a group of dedicated district, school, and classroom leaders from across Tennessee who are working together to improve early literacy.

For the past eighteen months, the LIFT districts have been piloting stronger aligned instructional materials in K-2 English language arts (ELA) classrooms, and they have seen promising early results:

• A third of literacy classrooms now show some or full alignment to the Tennessee ELA standards, compared to less than 10 percent during initial reviews.
• Almost nine in ten teachers feel “more supported” because of this work.
• More than nine in ten teachers believe this work “benefits the students” in their districts.

LIFT recently released a report that highlights what they learned are the key levers for improving early literacy based on their work.

Their first learning is that materials matter. We know from the Tennessee Educator Survey that K-2 teachers spend an average of 4.5 hours per week curating resources to teach literacy. We also know that many of these resources come from places like Pinterest, which may not ensure that the materials are high-quality. One LIFT superintendent shared that adopting stronger materials has allowed teachers to spend their time preparing lessons, improving their content knowledge, and collaboratively planning with other teachers to ensure their instruction is of the highest quality—rather than spending that time online searching for materials.

Their second learning is that content knowledge is essential for leaders too. To better support teachers, school and district leaders must truly understand the instructional shifts required by our standards, particularly as they relate to early literacy. This allows them to make the best decisions on things like scheduling, staffing, resource allocation, and professional learning supports for teachers. LIFT leaders frequently walk classrooms together using a tool called the Instructional Practice Guide to check on literacy instruction and provide non-evaluative, content-specific feedback to teachers. This process allows them to norm with peers and have deep discussions about nuanced aspects of early literacy instruction, authentically building their own content knowledge.

Their third learning is that change management is critical to enacting change that sticks. Rather than delivering a top-down decision about curricula, LIFT leaders engaged teachers in choosing the resources that would best meet their students’ needs. They relied on resources like EdReports to ensure the materials teachers were choosing from were high-quality, but the ultimate decision was reached by consensus. Further, they chose to go slow to go fast by implementing small-scale pilots to allow learning and course adjustment as needed. This ensured that leaders could address any barriers that arose—limiting strain on teachers and building investment. For example, teachers in one district were struggling with their district’s report card format, as their new approach to instruction focuses less on teaching skills and standards in isolation and more on holistic knowledge-building. This concern was surfaced during a focus group with pilot teachers, and the district was able to adjust their report card requirements to ease that burden for teachers.

Their final learning is that teachers need opportunities for resource-specific, job-embedded professional learning to improve practice. Leaders must prioritize finding time for teachers to meet with instructional coaches and peers to dig into the materials and plan for how to use them to have the greatest impact. Simply handing teachers new materials and expecting a dramatic change is unrealistic. Teachers must have time to explore the materials, internalize the enduring understandings of each lesson, and plan for how to meet the needs of every student.

We will continue to follow the work of the LIFT districts as they expand their instructional materials work into upper elementary. The teachers and leaders in these districts have given us many lessons to learn from as we advocate for stronger literacy instruction in Tennessee, and we hope they have more to share.

Teacher Planning Cycles Increase Student Vocabulary and Knowledge

When we think of early literacy, we often think of foundational skills and phonics instruction—the mechanics of learning to read. But there’s another, equally important task during early grades: building vocabulary and knowledge of the world through engagement with rich, complex text.

In order for students to be able to comprehend rich text in later grades, they need a foundation of vocabulary words and mental schema about the world. Tackling a seventh-grade biology text, for example, is a whole lot easier if a student has heard words like “photosynthesis” and “ecological” and discussed concepts like cell division in earlier grades. But for this knowledge to stick, it needs to be delivered in cohesive units, allowing students to take away enduring understandings about those topics. It’s great for a student to understand photosynthesis, but that student also needs to connect it to a larger body of knowledge around how living things use resources, create energy, and grow.

LIFT Education, a group of 12 like-minded Tennessee districts convened by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), has spent the last year and a half collaborating on high-quality early literacy instruction, focusing on building knowledge and vocabulary by piloting knowledge-rich read-alouds in early grades. Most will expand this work in more classrooms this fall.

With strong instructional materials as a foundation, teachers will spend less time compiling or creating lesson material, and more time collaborating with their colleagues to think about the intellectual content of the lesson and how to best engage students. To do this, LIFT teachers will take part in a preparation, implementation, and reflection cycle for each unit. This cycle will support teachers in focusing on those enduring understandings that will develop students’ knowledge, vocabulary, and mental schema over time.

These cycles consist of three major components. Consider a group of Kindergarten teachers teaching a read-aloud unit on plants—the very type of unit that lays the foundation for that seventh-grade biology textbook:

First, teachers prepare carefully for the unit by:

• Reading all texts and considering the vocabulary, concepts, and big ideas—what knowledge and ideas will my students take away? For example, in the Kindergarten unit, the big idea for students might be that all plants need food, water, air, and sunlight to survive.
• Ensuring that the end-of-unit culminating task allows and requires students to demonstrate the enduring understanding of the unit. Simply labeling the parts of a plant wouldn’t show deep understanding of a plant’s needs, but drawing a clear picture of a plant’s full ecosystem and writing one sentence about it would.
• Planning individual lessons with those larger, enduring understandings in mind. How will the texts, questions, and tasks build toward those enduring understandings? How will they get students to that “aha!” moment at some point in the unit so they can complete the culminating task?

Next, teachers implement this planning and teach the unit, bringing this rich preparation to life for students. Teachers in the LIFT network will continue to work with each other throughout implementation, discussing what went well and where to fine-tune their planning. For example, teachers might see evidence in an end-of-lesson task that students don’t fully understand the purpose of a plant’s roots; they might choose to re-read portions of a text on roots or even introduce a new text that talks about roots to boost student knowledge.

Finally, teachers will reflect and debrief after the completion of a unit, looking first at student work on the culminating task. Did students demonstrate the enduring understandings? What areas did they comprehend better than others? Are students making progress toward grade-level standards? And, critically, how does this inform how the unit will be taught in the following year, and how should instruction change for the next unit?

Teachers will implement this cycle in a variety of ways over the coming year, including through weekly PLCs and planning sessions before each unit or quarter. In each district, carving out time for collaboration will elevate teacher practice and professionalism and create better opportunities for students to build knowledge and vocabulary.


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This SCORE Sheet post was co-authored by Chris Daniels and Courtney Bell

Chris Daniels is a Project Director with TNTP, where he focuses on early literacy academic strategy with a consortium of districts in Tennessee and cross-LEA collaboration on staffing policies in Washington, DC. Prior to working with TNTP, Chris served at the U.S. Department of Education, at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and as a seventh-grade math teacher in Philadelphia. He holds a BA in religion from Columbia University, an MS in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

The Importance of Strong Literacy Instructional Materials

In districts across Tennessee, exciting things are happening in K-2 literacy:

• In Lauderdale County, special education students in kindergarten are flourishing in conversations about fine art, discussing how human progress can change a landscape over time.
•  In Loudon County, second-graders are talking about the Trail of Tears in a unit about westward expansion, using vocabulary words like “encountered,” “insisted,” and “relocate.”
• And in Jackson-Madison County, first-grade students are identifying how different folktales from Japan, Europe, and America have similar messages across cultures.

What’s behind these great moments? In each of these districts, teachers are trying out new instructional materials to support students’ reading and listening comprehension. So far, they’re seeing lessons that better reflect the demands of the Tennessee English language arts (ELA) standards and significant development in students’ abilities.

Each of these districts is part of LIFT Education, a network of 12 innovative school systems across Tennessee. A year ago, these districts identified K-2 literacy as a common area for collaboration. After engaging in an instructional diagnostic process with TNTP, the network decided to focus on expanding and improving the time students spent on rich, complex text. In most cases, this meant a focus on read-alouds and the questions and tasks that help students build knowledge and vocabulary.

LIFT districts have a clear theory of action in this work: Real improvements in the classroom happen when teachers are supported in their planning process by strong, standards-aligned instructional materials. This year, teachers in each district are piloting either Core Knowledge, Wit & Wisdom, or both, each of which provides teachers with high-quality units that build students’ knowledge of the world and deep understanding of vocabulary and enduring concepts.

Teacher piloting the new materials see a profound shift:

• 84 percent say they feel more supported in their classrooms as a result of the new instructional materials.
• 87 percent say new instructional materials allow them to deliver higher-quality lessons than what they were doing previously.
• 96 percent say their students’ vocabulary is growing noticeably as a result of these materials.

In addition, classroom visits by TNTP have found significantly more lessons that reflect the demands of the Tennessee standards. In diagnostic visits, only 8 percent of classrooms had lessons that met these demands. But in districts where materials have been used for the entire school year, almost a third of classrooms met some or all of the demands, with another third showing some promising practices, and over 90 percent centered on a high-quality, appropriately complex text.

Perhaps most importantly, these instructional materials are encouraging teachers to raise their expectations for students and increase the rigor in their classrooms. Teachers note that in the past, they may have watered things down for kids who were not on grade level. But now, “The students are really digging deep into the text,” says a teacher in Lauderdale County. “I’m now asking questions that are more challenging for students in a different way. Kids who struggled previously are really shining and doing deep thinking.”

What’s next for these districts? In the fall, all of them will continue to use these new instructional materials, and some will roll them out to more teachers. Says another teacher involved in the early literacy work: “We feel a sense of urgency, and these materials are supporting our teachers and students in amazing ways.”


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This SCORE Sheet post was co-authored by Chris Daniels and Courtney Seiler

Chris Daniels is a Project Director with TNTP, where he focuses on early literacy academic strategy with a consortium of districts in Tennessee and cross-LEA collaboration on staffing policies in Washington, DC. Prior to working with TNTP, Chris served at the U.S. Department of Education, at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and as a seventh-grade math teacher in Philadelphia. He holds a BA in religion from Columbia University, an MS in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Knowledge-Rich Texts Lay the Foundation for Early-Literacy Progress

WCS Bloghen a first-grader in Trousdale County was recently asked to sit down on his behind, he replied with the correct anatomical term: “You mean on my gluteus maximus?”

The adults nearby were amazed. A first grader? Using vocabulary like this?

In Trousdale, Putnam, and Sullivan counties, parents, bus drivers, and community members keep asking: “What are you teaching these kids?” All three districts are part of the LIFT Network, a group of 12 innovative school systems that vary from the state’s smallest to its largest. Convened by SCORE, these districts are focused on a common problem of practice: improving K-2 literacy.

A 2016 TN Department of Education report shows evidence of a performance slide in Tennessee elementary schools: almost half of students that score “proficient” or “advanced” on third-grade ELA exams slip to lower achievement levels by fifth grade. Experts believe this is because of an over-emphasis on teaching reading skills (e.g., phonics, fluency, spelling, print concepts) in early grades and an under-emphasis on teaching knowledge-based competencies (e.g., reading comprehension and meaning-making) that underpin later reading success.

CS Blog2To tackle this challenge, the LIFT network is focused on improving read-alouds in K-2 classrooms. Read-alouds are dedicated times for teachers to read rich, complex texts out loud to students, allowing children in early grades to grapple with and discuss ideas and texts they are capable of understanding but cannot yet read independently. Indeed, research shows that students’ independent reading ability only catches up to their listening comprehension at about age 13.

Trousdale, Putnam, and Sullivan counties are particularly focused on reading aloud texts that not only teach students new words but also share important facts about real-world topics, like colonial history and science. The Tennessee ELA standards require students to “establish a base of knowledge across a wide range of subject matter” and “gain both general knowledge and discipline-specific expertise”. A strong read-aloud unit focuses on high-quality texts around a common topic that builds students’ knowledge and understanding of the world, such as the human body, colonial towns and townspeople, or seasons and weather.

The results of this emphasis speak for themselves:

  • Students are using new vocabulary in their personal lives. First-graders in Trousdale County are talking with their parents about the food pyramid, using vocabulary like “dairy”, “grains”, “servings”, and “non-healthy fats.”
  • Struggling readers are not only engaged in classroom discussions but leading them: in Putnam County, kindergarten students who receive special education services are presenting evidence to their teachers after discussing texts on plants and farms.
  • Students in early grades are developing knowledge about the world and the skills to utilize that knowledge: second-graders in Sullivan County are having formal classroom debates about whether they’d rather live in ancient Athens or ancient Sparta.

 

While these districts have seen early successes, these efforts are a work in progress. Knowledge-rich content is only one piece of a great read-aloud; teachers also need to ensure that texts are appropriately complex, that questions and tasks reflect the demands of the Tennessee standards, and that students are responsible for doing the critical thinking over the course of a lesson. Throughout the year, SCORE will continue to highlight how LIFT network districts are grappling with these challenges.


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This SCORE Sheet post was co-authored by Chris Daniels and Courtney Seiler

Chris Daniels is a Project Director with TNTP, where he focuses on early literacy academic strategy with a consortium of districts in Tennessee and cross-LEA collaboration on staffing policies in Washington, DC. Prior to working with TNTP, Chris served at the U.S. Department of Education, at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and as a seventh-grade math teacher in Philadelphia. He holds a BA in religion from Columbia University, an MS in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.