Research into Practice: Building Background Knowledge to Support Reading Comprehension

This year, a national conversation about how we teach reading has led to numerous discussions about important research. Jared, Robin, and Brian wrote about it in an Education Week editorial, We Have a National Reading Crisis.

One of its “essential insights” is the role of content knowledge in reading success:

“Students’ background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. Curricula should help students build content knowledge in history and science, in order to empower reading success.”

This topic deserves a lot more attention. Lately, the sharing in the Twitterverse suggests that it’s on everyone’s mind! When you read across the tweets, a powerful picture emerges.

First, The Why

Let’s start with the research. The excitement about students’ content knowledge only makes sense when you know why it matters. If this research is new to you:

Start by watching this 4-minute video that explains the famous Baseball Study. It’s the perfect primer – proven to generate ‘aha’ moments.

This blog goes a layer deeper, and our Resources page contains additional professional learning materials.

Curriculum = The How

When you get your head around this research, you pretty quickly realize two things:

  1. You need curriculum that builds content knowledge for students, especially students from less privileged backgrounds, whose early years may not have included travel and museum visits to foster exposure to academic subjects.
  2. It would be extremely challenging to build a knowledge-rich curriculum yourself. And it’d be unwise assume that teachers could easily do it themselves.

Fortunately, there are now multiple “knowledge-rich” English Language Arts curricula, which have been designed to build content knowledge during Tier 1 instruction. All of the curricula that earn “all-green” reviews on EdReports meet this criteria, and across our ‘squad,’ we have used four of them in our classrooms.

The Proof is in the Practice

The stories that we’ve been sharing provide an excellent window into HOW curriculum aligns practice with the research… and also how students respond.

Robin has been talking about her students’ responses to knowledge-rich curricula in Sullivan County, where they use the Core Knowledge (aka CKLA) curriculum:

Students are engaging with rich topics from kindergarten:

Jared has been talking about work with Core Knowledge in Jackson-Madison, too:

Starla Scott, a 3rd grade teacher in Jackson-Madison, has been writing about her work with EL Education’s Language Arts curriculum:

Her students recently finished a unit about frogs. Student writing shone there, too:

The science topics are intentionally and thoughtfully translated into student writing projects:

Kids are fascinated by these topics:

By design, they work collaboratively, so they’re building their social skills in the process:

The curriculum incorporates routines and protocols that get students talking about their learning:

There is excitement about the student work across Jackson-Madison school district:

We also see these stories coming out of districts using the ARC Core curriculum:

Engagement and joy are evident!

We see these stories coming out of districts using the Wit & Wisdom curriculum:

Engagement is a theme:

And these are far from the only stories! In fact, a recent School Tour visited classrooms using knowledge-rich curricula, and these firsthandclassroom accounts provide additional glimpses into this work.

It’s the student work, student voices, student outcomes, and visible student engagement that leave us convinced that we are doing the right work. Hopefully this window into our classrooms helps explain our passion – and lends tangibility to the work of bringing critical research into practice.

Photo credit: Starla Scott’s adorable Frog Festival Publishing Party photo graces the header of this blog. That picture is Joy of Knowledge Personified. Thank you to Starla for sharing her work with us each week!

Literacy Is the Innovation Opportunity of 2019

The most exciting and actionable innovation opportunity before us is the potential to improve reading instruction at scale. That’s the conversation we need to be having in every district office.

Right now, you may be hearing more about reading concerns. And honestly, those issues are very real. I was proud to co-author a recent Education Week editorial, We Have a National Reading Crisis, which talks about the other side of the coin: numerous pervasive issues with reading instruction.

I have seen consistent misunderstandings about reading in three districts where I have served as a district leader. I hope you’ll take time to read the editorial, as I can’t summarize the concerns any better than Jared Myracle, Robin McClellan, and I captured them for EdWeek!

A friend saw the “national reading crisis” headline and said, “That makes it sound like this is a new issue, when it isn’t.” It’s a fair point. Much of the research we’re discussing was established by the National Reading Panel twenty years ago, or by previous research. Also, as a country, we have seen little growth in reading outcomes in 20 years. That IS a crisis– and it should compel our attention.

Jared, Robin, and I don’t just name issues… we talk about the solutions that are working in our districts. That’s why I feel inspired by this moment: Every sizable problem is an equally sizable opportunity.  

Vastly improved reading outcomes are actually within reach, and that motivates me.

Here’s my evidence:

The Curriculum Renaissance:

Districts finally have many choices for high-quality curriculum that’s aligned to research, aligned to standards, and built for the pedagogy we want.

I’ve had the pleasure to serve two of the largest school systems in North Carolina. Currently I’m working on my second ELA curriculum adoption in three years, and I am awed at how rapidly the options have improved, even in that short period.

The strongest new curricula improve on the previous generation in ways that might surprise you:

  • Most are designed to promote discourse and even social-emotional learning in Tier 1 English Language Arts.
  • Some are natural springboards for Project Based Learning.
  • Many are built around beloved trade books and culturally diverse texts.
  • Some are Open Educational Resources (OER) – which means they are free to use, and also that educators are given clear permission to edit/enhance the materials.
  • Many have been co-developed in classrooms.
  • I could say a great deal about the strong support for reading and writing instruction – and that’s probably its own blog. What stands out most is a frequent emphasis on helping students become good communicators, in writing and speech. Inspirational student writing and speaking experiences can be norms in our classrooms.

I could go on. I’d suggest checking out the materials that are “all-green” in EdReports reviews, as they each have their own virtues.

Our standards call for instructional shifts, and curriculum makes them tangible and achievable. It’s the power tool we need.

The Professional Learning Angle:

The stronger curricula support more rigorous teaching and learning, which is a key part of their appeal. They are research-aligned, which makes curriculum implementation a natural, powerful opportunity for job-embedded learning on reading research. In addition, many of the curricula are designed to be “educative,” and contain professional learning resources within the teacher materials, sometimes in the lesson plans.

For all of these reasons, I have seen curriculum implementation offer the most effective job-embedded professional learning.

While this yields better teaching, it’s not easy teaching. And practice shifts can be daunting for any of us. Fortunately, this generation of providers “gets it,” and each offers genuinely excellent support for implementation. That’s the good news. The straight talk is: you must budget and plan for that substantive PD as part of your implementation plan. I promise that it pays real dividends.

If you bring in truly excellent materials, and then support your teachers in understanding the Why and the How of those materials, you will be shocked at the instructional gain.

The No Shame Zone:

As we talk of “national reading crisis,” and generations of educators who don’t know key research, this is my favorite theme:

“Educators urgently need a national movement for professional learning about reading. We should declare a No Shame Zone for this work—to make it safe for all educators to say, “I have unfinished learning around literacy.”

I’m all in on the No Shame Zone. And I hope that the reality of a national reading crisis gives us safe space to have authentic, humble conversations and grow together.

May that spirit of openness and continuous improvement set a course for us to bring the long-established reading research into practice.

Right now, I know I am not the only leader prioritizing ELA improvement, and I sense a shift in the national conversation about innovation in K–12 education. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools. Four years ago, ed tech felt like its clear focus. Then last year, during a workshop, I geeked out about curriculum with Dr. Clayton Wilcox – who would become my new boss in September (who would have thought?) – and a group of educators; together we created this fishbone diagram:

Our Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools fishbone diagram. Notice that we used the largest font to write “PD.”

Still, literacy and math instruction felt like secondary themes at that convening.

But today, after revising its areas of focus, the League of Innovative Schools have Math and ELA in column 1:

And that feels very right.

Can we accelerate this cultural shift? Improving reading outcomes, and empowering teachers to understand and implement reading research, should be talked about as innovation of the highest order. Making impactful, inspiring, systemic changes to instruction IS innovation. Let’s use that language.

In addition, the curriculum renaissance and improved PD represent innovation by many providers. Let’s applaud it.  

With only a third of our students showing reading proficiency, is there any better focus for our innovative energies? Developing literacy skills is about so much more than reading comprehension… it’s a means to help students make meaning of the world and of themselves through the art of expression, reading, and learning. As I see it, the national reading crisis  presents us with both an urgent priority and a genuine opportunity to better serve children.

Brian Kingsley is the Chief Academic Officer at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which serves 136,000 students in Mecklenburg County, NC.

Curriculum Notes

If you’d like to speak with me about the specific curricula used in my district, I should note that I joined Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in September, and we are currently evaluating the curricula used in our schools.

That initiative is a team effort. It takes a village to raise reading outcomes – something I plan to write more about in my next blog. (If I’m being honest, I have struggled a bit with this aspect of advocacy work. I don’t mind putting myself out there, and raising my voice in support of better reading instruction, alongside my remarkable peers in other districts. But I can’t emphasize enough that systemic change is about the people across that system, and the way they hundreds of people come together to pull for kids together. Look for more on this soon.)

I am so proud of our team for its work in this process, as I have been sharing in social media:

I can speak to the experience I had with high quality-curricula used in my former district, Wake County Public School System. Previously, I shared the story of Wake County’s curriculum selection and implementation process in this Education Week piece: How Systems Can Support High-Quality Curricula.

Wake County’s team selected the following high-quality curricula:

K–6 ELA: EL Education Language Arts (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes), provided by Open Up Resources

6–8 Math: Open Up Resources 6–8 Math (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

Mission Field: My Curriculum Journey

I’m incredibly inspired by this moment. Right now, I’m seeing a growing interest in reading instruction, and judging from the chatter in social media, it seems like districts across the country are beginning to have the conversation that we have been having in my district: How to we improve our reading and math instruction system-wide, to align with research-based practice?

In Tennessee, we have been a part of a local Professional Learning Community collaborating around those problems of practice, the TN SCORE network. At convenings, and in 1:1 conversations, we have been working together, and I have learned so much from my peers in doing this work.

So it’s incredibly inspiring to me to work with Jared, Brian, Nakia, and Jana Beth to take this collaboration to a national level. When I read Jared’s words in The urgency I feel around instruction – and why I look to curriculum, I’m reminded all over that we are on exactly the same journey, facing the same challenges, using similar approaches to address these issues, and seeing similar positive outcomes. I can’t wait to connect with others doing this work.

Reader, I hope you will join our PLN.

I began blogging, too, so that I can share insights from our district’s work. Here I’m sharing my first blog, on my ‘aha’ moments around reading instruction and our journey to elevate instruction with curriculum.

Robin McClellan

Mission Field

I think of my work in education as a mission field. Called to teach when I was a child, it has always been my labor of love to fight for the underdog: the Davids among Goliaths.

Yet as a product of the whole language era in my own post-secondary education, I spent the first 21 years of my career as both teacher and principal not knowing what I didn’t know. I created, planned, taught, and monitored with the very best of intentions and with the learner at the center of every action and decision. I loved my students, provided for their basic needs, encouraged and supported them, and worked tirelessly to inspire hope for a future.

Throughout the first ten years as school and later district-level leader, I analyzed district, school, teacher, and student achievement and growth data. The disconnect between ELA achievement and growth data and my own classroom walkthroughs and observations was unsettling; I fully believed in the power and potential of our teachers and leaders, yet student growth was stagnant and achievement hovered around the state’s performance: 30% of our 3-8 students were demonstrating mastery of grade-level standards on TNReady year after year. I lost sleep over it.

What was the issue? What was the problem? Why weren’t our children making progress and showing gains? I learned about literacy instruction in 1993 and whole language was the ticket, right? Oh, well then I learned about phonics instruction as a classroom teacher and that was the ticket, right? And then balanced literacy and then…and then…

My epiphany came in 2016 like a tornado rather than a gentle breeze when I was taught –through collaboration with SCORE and TNTP – that we must build students’ background knowledge while explicitly teaching foundational skills. Recht and Leslie (1988) rocked my world in their groundbreaking study; if you don’t know this research, this short video is a great primer.

I realized, with great dismay, that our work didn’t align with the research on how kids learn to read.

It also became clear that our teachers were trying to build the house – and teach children how to read and understand what they are reading – on shifting sand (weak curriculum that didn’t build background knowledge) rather than on rock (strong curriculum)…the footers hadn’t been poured.

Enter high quality curriculum.

In my district, we have seen powerful outcomes by bringing in new curriculum that is designed around the aforementioned research. Excellent curriculum has given us the instructional foundation we needed, and I’ll share more results and details soon.

It has been a journey: 3 years of learning about the vital importance of instructional materials, bringing teachers and leaders to the table to select a strong literacy curriculum, and managing the organizational shifts in thinking and practice, with the support of strategy leads.  We have witnessed first-hand the ripple of impact, and it has changed us as educators, my friends. We now know that all kids can reach a higher bar, because we have seen what happens in our classrooms when we expect all kids to achieve AND give teachers the right instructional tools.

Looking back, I now realize that I did not hold students to high expectations because I did not know, nor could I fathom, what young children were capable of learning, producing, and accomplishing. I wasn’t consciously lowering expectations, but I did not “own” the fact ALL students (not SOME) could and would rise to shatter glass ceilings that were seemingly impenetrable due to circumstances beyond their realm of control.

You can talk endlessly about problems with education policy, the proverbial pendulum, lack of parent involvement, generational and situational poverty, and apathy. Those problems are real, but they can sometimes feel paralysing. Now, I see solutions that empower teachers and propel kids, and that inspires me.

I want to share the power of elevated expectations, structural strategy, collaboration, and the immeasurable value of leveraging the strengths, talents, and voices of teachers and leaders. Within my district, and hopefully beyond, my ultimate goals are to:

  • propel educational equity for all children through advocacy and awareness of the importance of high quality curricula.
  • equip teachers with strong materials that enable them to TEACH rather than GATHER and CREATE (as they have been suffering from curriculum development exhaustion).
  • empower teachers to become action researchers who are willing to grapple with the “messiness” of change.
  • analyze student work, celebrate growth, and capture the “stories” of this journey.
  • highlight and honor the impact of the work of our teachers and leaders.

It’s time to come together as we move toward the adoption of English Language Arts curriculum within the next two years. These curriculum selections have high stakes for our kids: In a review by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, Dr. David Steiner, Executive Director, noted, “The overarching conclusions from the Johns Hopkins’ review are that curriculum is deeply important, that a teacher’s or district’s choice of curriculum can substantially impact student learning, and that—as a result—the paucity of evidence upon which sound instructional, purchasing, and policy decisions can be made is a matter of deep concern and urgent need.”

These curriculum selections also come at a time when Sue Pimentel describes a “curriculum renaissance,” with new options that are meaningfully different from the curricula from traditional publishers. They support foundational skill development and knowledge acquisition by our youngest learners. Yet they are unknown to most districts. So, this must be a time of professional learning for ELA leaders.

Dr. E.D. Hirsch asserted, “the right to parity of knowledge among young pupils will come to be understood as a civil right.” I am ready to fight that fight for kids. Who’s with me?

If you’re with me: I’d like you to join a community that’s forming around high-quality curriculum use, Curriculum Matters. My work with high-quality curriculum has been elevated and supported by collaboration with other leaders in the state, like Jared Myracle of Jackson-Madison County Schools. Now, Jared and I – and other district leaders with whom we’ve been speaking – are intrigued by the potential of a PLN for curriculum work.

If you think that a curriculum PLN could elevate your work, too, please:

I originally published this piece on my blog, which you can follow here. I serve as the Elementary Supervisor in Sullivan County Schools in Tennessee.

Curriculum Notes

If you’d like to speak with me about the specific high-quality curricula used in my district, they are:

K–3 ELA: Core Knowledge Language Arts (all-green on EdReports, Tier 1 on Louisiana Believes)

4th ELA: Core Knowledge Language Arts pilots in six schools.

5th ELA: Core Knowledge Language Arts pilot in one school.