District implements new literacy curriculum

  • Written by Deborah Stone
First grade teacher Cally Ingram implements the new curriculum with her class at Hollywood Hill Elementary School. Photo by Deborah Stone.
It’s been almost 15 years since Northshore adopted a literacy curriculum for its elementary schools.

With most adoption cycles closer to every eight years, the district knew it needed a new curriculum, but it wasn’t in a position to implement one due to continued budget cuts.

“It’s been a priority all along,” says Nancy Young, Northshore’s director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction, “and finally we were able to work it into the budget.”

The process of choosing a new curriculum took almost two years, with parents, teachers, principals and other administrators weighing in on the decision.

Eventually, two plans were piloted in each school and based on their feedback, the Literacy Advisory Team made its recommendation to the Curriculum Materials Adoption Committee, which then put it before the Board.

The new curriculum, which focuses on both reading and writing, is from Benchmark Education and spans kindergarten through sixth grade.

According to Young, it will provide a consistent and coherent balanced-literacy learning experience for all students.

“Whereas the previous curriculum, which emphasized a basal approach that taught to the middle of the road with each student having the same book or anthology to read, this new curriculum uses explicit teacher modeling of strategies and skills, along with shared experiences and instruction matched to the needs of the students,” explains Young.

“The modeling and instruction typically happens first in the whole group setting. There are also opportunities for guided instruction in small groups targeted to specific needs.

“Students then get to collaborate with their peers about what they are learning, which helps to solidify their thinking. Combined, all these experiences provide the support for students to independently apply the skills and knowledge to new situations.

“No matter what the text, fiction or nonfiction, they will have the necessary problem solving strategies to make meaning out of the material.”

Young adds that balanced literacy programs have been around for a number of years and have been regarded as the preferred approach to teaching reading. What is new is that now there are instruction manuals to provide teachers with a scope and sequence of learning opportunities that build upon one another through the various elementary grade levels.

She says, “A number of the teachers in the district have been moving towards this approach for a while, picking and choosing their own materials to supplement the existing curriculum. Now, with this program, they will have all the books right in the classroom so they won’t have to gather their own materials. And they will have the support of the program. Most importantly, it will be consistent in use across the board.”

As part of the program, every child in first through sixth grade will have an individualized running record (IRR) of their reading that teachers will share with parents at conferences.

The IRR, which will be formally administered a minimum of twice a year, provides both teachers and parents specific information about a student’s progress in reading and what they need to learn next.

To administer an IRR, the teacher chooses a passage and the student reads aloud so that the teacher can record oral reading behaviors and look for patterns.

The teacher also asks the student comprehension questions to see if he/she understands the meaning of the text.

Young explains that the IRR helps ensure that each student is reading “just right” books – books that match the child’s individual reading level.

With this knowledge, teachers can make appropriate decisions when it comes to forming small reading groups and selecting a specific focus for teaching. As for parents, Young comments: “There’s more information provided to help parents support their children at home.”

She adds, “The level of detail that comes from the assessment is unique. It gives real evidence of reading behaviors and provides clear examples of how children are performing. From this assessment, parents will know what types of texts their children should be reading at home every night in order to improve their fluency and comprehension. They’ll also be able to ask the teacher if their child is making expected progress.”

In preparation of the curriculum’s implementation, teachers received training over the summer from a team of consultants from the publisher, as well as from several of their peers who developed classes about the method.

On-going professional development will continue at both the school site and district in the ensuing months.

The district has also adopted a new word study curriculum entitled, “Words Their Way.”

This program, which will be implemented next fall includes phonics, spelling and vocabulary instruction.

The focus is on teaching students how to think about words – how they sound, the relationships and patterns between them, their origins and meanings. Young says, “This is a tried and true program that many of our schools have been using for a while, but beginning next fall, it will be consistent at all elementary schools.”

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