Last spring school districts across Tennessee engaged in a rigorous adoption process to vet and select new instructional materials for English Language Arts. Based on the work of Tennessee’s early adopters in the LIFT Network, we know these materials can dramatically improve outcomes for students. But as many teachers have some or all of their students learning remotely this year, implementing new instructional materials feels like a monumental task.

We recently spoke with first-grade teachers from the LIFT Network who shared the benefits of high-quality instructional materials for meaningful at-home learning. Wendy Jones, a first-grade teacher at Lenoir City Elementary School, uses the EL Language Arts curriculum to support ELA instruction.

Q: Wendy, how did the EL materials support your shift to remote learning this spring?

A: The EL Language Arts curriculum has two components in first grade — a skills block where students engage in familiar routines to build foundational skills and separate module lessons where they engage with complex text read-alouds to build knowledge, vocabulary, and comprehension. When we shifted to remote learning, I had materials and tasks because everything in the curriculum is available online. Other items — Decodables, my chaining board, and sound board — I brought home from my classroom.

The curriculum, notably the Skills Block, offered students structure and routine. The routines are familiar, and the kids are comfortable with them. Being familiar with the routines helped the lesson to move smoothly. I didn’t have to change anything significantly.

Q: Did your planning look different as you prepared for remote instruction using EL?

A: I planned like I would for a regular day and tried to keep activities in the same order in a limited time, starting with Skills Block routines and then discussing the read-aloud. We also reserved time at the beginning to share and address technology issues. You always have students who come to the online class without their book, so with a document camera ready to project the text on screen, students could still have their turn to read and find high-frequency words.

Q: Did having a team of teachers in your district using the same curriculum support your shift to remote learning?

A: Because we are using the same materials across our school, we had a school-wide plan for remote instruction that helped everyone get on the same page. That made it easier for parents who have more than one child in our school. While the specific texts and tasks were different, the routines and expectations were the same for students in different grade levels. Teachers also knew what the end goal was, so we were able to divide the work. For example, some of us recorded read-alouds, while others put together directions for families.

Q: What advice would you give to teachers using new instructional materials AND supporting students to learn from home?

A: First, don’t make assumptions about your students’ families. Don’t expect that every family with a smartphone can use that device for at-home learning. (The parent may have to leave for work, taking the phone with them.) Don’t assume families are familiar with technology. Plus, it’s hard for families with multiple children learning at home at the same time with limited bandwidth.

Second, build relationships. This spring I learned a lot about what my students have going on at home and found ways to help them. During the closure, one mom couldn’t get a job because she lacked a high school diploma. Custody issues came up for another family. Other families experienced food issues. Parents also watched their children learn, saw the struggles they were having, and sought support and suggestions. Because I wasn’t starting from scratch to source texts and plan learning tasks for students, I could focus on building strong relationships with my students’ families that were critical to their success.

Kate Glover is director of TNTP, a national organization that advances policies and practices to ensure effective teaching in every classroom. 

More about literacy instruction and the LIFT network: