Literacy-First: A Winning Strategy at One Elementary School

Literacy-First: A Winning Strategy at One Elementary School

How can a school help students make gains on annual math and reading tests while also ensuring the development of long-term, transferable academic skills? One answer, based on a model in use at Concourse Village Elementary School in New York City, is to adopt a collaborative, “literacy-first” approach to teaching and learning—for students and teachers alike.

Nearly all the K–5 students at Concourse Village live in poverty, according to federal free and reduced-price lunch guidelines; most students are not white; and 15% are experiencing homelessness. As principal Alexa Sorden said in a recent interview with writer and teacher Carly Berwick for Edutopia, these factors were long used as an excuse not to make the school as strong as it could be. 

Sorden became principal in 2013, when Concourse Village emerged from the ashes of a previous neighborhood school. Having witnessed the state of neglect and disrepair at the previous school, Sorden knew right away that Concourse Village students needed—and deserved—a welcoming, safe school with a motivated, supported teaching staff and a clear sense of purpose. Calling upon her background as an elementary school teacher and literacy coach, Sorden put literacy instruction at the core of her mission to “establish effective practices” at Concourse Village, which is where the literacy-first approach came into play. 

But first, a note of clarification: Although the system in use at Concourse Village shares its name with a national program called Literacy First that places Americorps tutors in early elementary school classrooms to give individual students one-on-one help with reading, the two approaches are not quite the same thing. That said, they do have a similar fundamental concept, with both organized around a belief that strong reading and writing skills are essential for academic success and must form the basis of all instruction for marginalized students.

A high-stakes situation

Students from under-resourced communities—including many of those at Concourse Village—are much more likely to lag behind their wealthier peers in such measures as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Indeed, the most recent scores from the 2017 iteration of this criterion-referenced test revealed a consistent fact: Learners who attend schools where the majority of students live in poverty have far lower average reading scores than those who do not attend such schools.

And lower reading levels are nothing to brush aside, as statistics compiled by sources such as Concordia University in Portland indicate that students with inadequate literacy skills are far more likely to end up in prison, be unemployed, or otherwise struggle to get by. With an estimated 30 million adults “at or below the third grade in reading, writing, and math,” according to Literacy Works, the United States is facing what some say is a serious literacy crisis.

In other words, the stakes are high for Sorden, her staff, and their students, which is why Sorden’s literacy-first program is based on a schoolwide approach that puts literacy skills at the forefront of every academic endeavor. 

Breaking down the process

As outlined in Berwick's Edutopia profile of Sorden, students at Concourse Village spend part of each day engaged in explicit literacy exercises (for example, collaborative read-aloud and literary analysis activities) that involve small groups of students working together to read texts that are at or above grade level, with these activities serving as a way to supportively practice reading more complex academic material and also learn how to break down and interpret it.

Berwick explained the process thusly:

In the model, students read portions of new, challenging grade-level and above-grade-level texts aloud together every day to improve vocabulary and boost reading proficiency. Then, they answer questions in small groups following the MACAS method (main idea, annotation, comprehension, author’s purpose, and summary) to demystify the often-opaque process of analysis in a shared, safe space before trying it on their own.

Berwick also provided several video examples of the work being done at Concourse Village to offer a more detailed look at how the school’s literacy-first philosophy works in practice, and her article goes on to describe how the MACAS method is carried over into math, science, and art classes throughout the school in an effort to strengthen and reinforce students’ emerging literacy skills. The goal is to have students actively and continually engaged in problem-solving strategies that are rooted in reading, writing, and critical thinking and analysis. To prime teachers for optimal delivery of the literacy-first approach, Principal Sorden has implemented greater collaboration and support for teachers as part of what Berwick described as a “carefully choreographed procedure called intervisitation.” Simply put, pairing up teachers to observe and support one another’s practices tends to reduce the feelings of isolation often experienced by classroom teachers

So far, Sorden’s leadership and implementation of the literacy-first model seem to be yielding promising results. Not only has Concourse Village won a National Blue Ribbon Schools Program award for excellence, close to 90% of its students achieved a score of advanced or proficient on state exams in math and English language arts—a remarkable achievement given that, as NAEP scores have indicated, students in high-poverty schools tend not to reach such heights. 

Built around elbow grease, consistency, support for teachers, and immersion in literacy, Sorden's approach appears to be putting Concourse Village Elementary School students on a path to success.


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