The Power of Effective Literacy Instruction
Is the curriculum we’re using to teach students to read working? The data tells us it’s not. While 95% percent of students have the capacity to learn to read (when using programs based on the science of reading), only about 34% of fourth- and eighth-grade students can read proficiently.
That’s a big gap, and a worrying one. As much as 85% of public school curriculum in the United States is delivered via reading, so a literacy curriculum that fails to deliver proficiency is failing students, period. One major contributor to this issue is the current teacher shortage and lack of specialists within the public school system.
Academic success, personal empowerment, greater economic opportunities, and active civic participation are all literacy benefits that expand opportunities for students to develop their full academic and societal potential. Many new educators are struggling and in need of actionable steps to help their students accelerate their learning and find success (or even joy) on their journey toward literacy. So how can we get there?
First Things First: Equitable Literacy Instruction
It’s important to clarify upfront the difference between equality and equity in education. Equality is the leveling of the playing field so every student gets the exact same resources and support. Equity, on the other hand, means each student receives personalized learning geared to their particular needs so every student has the same opportunity to succeed.
Meeting each student where they are and providing individualized instruction is the most equitable approach to literacy—but that can be a lot to ask of already overloaded teachers.
By applying the body of research about how children learn to read, and by using educational technology tools that deliver supplementary instruction attuned to the student’s needs, lessons can be personalized to each student's skill level.
Let’s look at how effective literacy instruction can advance equity.
Implementing a Curriculum Based on the Science of Reading
A high-quality literacy curriculum advances literacy achievement. However, not all teachers are familiar with the decades of research about how to best teach reading, known as the science of reading, and the application of that research for instruction, Structured Literacy.
The Simple View of Reading is a helpful framework for thinking about reading instruction that is informed by the science of reading. The Simple View of Reading is a formula originally presented by Philip Gough and William Tunmer, and proposes that reading comprehension is the product of combining decoding and language comprehension.
As a refresher, decoding is the ability to translate print into its spoken equivalents, while language comprehension is the ability to derive meaning from text through listening.
When selecting edtech to supplement teacher-led instruction, it’s important to identify programs that have been proven by research to improve learning outcomes—it’s not enough to just be research-based. All quality literacy programs should cover each of these component areas:
- Phonology, the sound system of language
- Orthography, the writing system of language
- Morphology, the meaningful units of words (prefixes, roots, suffixes, and combining forms), called morphemes
- Semantics, the meanings of words and the relationships among words
- Pragmatics, the rules of conversation (e.g., eye contact, taking turns) and the use and interpretation of language in a particular context
- Syntax, the order and relationships of words in oral and written sentences, along with the structure of sentences in oral and written language
- Discourse, the organization of spoken and written communication
Educators who understand the science behind teaching reading know why it is so important to integrate each of these components into curriculum. Along with that, teachers should know how to go about teaching each of these components using the principles of Structured Literacy (e.g. explicit, systematic, etc.).
The Importance of Performance-Based and Embedded Assessment
In addition to traditional standardized assessments that target instructional needs for foundational skills (and measure student progress in these skills), the Department of Education’s “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA) recommends the addition of performance-based assessments. This type of assessment measures what standardized tests cannot: How students use and apply the knowledge they acquire through the completion of a task.
Teachers benefit from on-demand student progress data that can answer questions like:
- Which of my students are on track for success?
- How much progress are my students making?
- What is the profile of skills for my student?
- Where do I need to focus my intervention?
- Have my students learned the material that has been taught?
Armed with this insight, teachers can meet the unique instructional needs of a diverse body of students. One of the easiest ways to get this data is by supplementing teacher instructional time with a blended learning program that offers individualized learning paths and embedded assessment.
A blended learning approach provides personalized literacy instruction by identifying the student’s skill level in each area of reading and delivering instruction accordingly. This provides teachers with real-time performance data for each student—where they are doing well and where they might be struggling.
If school leaders are looking to edtech for support, they should opt for programs that offer individualized instruction, a blended learning structure, on-demand student progress data, and teacher support. This support for educators should include actionable next-step recommendations based on student performance data, and instructional resources for small-group and individual activities in the classroom.
How Can Teachers Implement Equitable Literacy Instruction?
How do a high-quality curriculum and performance-based assessment ensure all students receive adequate, equitable resources? The answer is: By identifying the strengths a student brings to the classroom, and thus developing plans to address their specific learning needs.
With this understanding, school leadership is equipped to:
- Align district and school initiatives
- Gauge the effectiveness of literacy instruction
- Plan professional learning opportunities
- Invest in research-proven edtech
- Allocate resources
With additional knowledge and tools, teachers are better equipped to match their instruction to a student’s needs as well as identify the best method of instruction to help the student succeed. This ensures the instructional curriculum, resources, and practices are not based on personal preference or personal beliefs, but are based on data, need, and scientific evidence.
As teachers translate student needs into instruction, it’s important to consider:
- Goals and objectives: Does the student understand the purpose for learning the skills and strategies taught? Does the teacher have assessment data to guide the setting of the goals?
- Appropriate pacing: Does the pace allow for frequent student response and maximize instructional time?
- An instructional routine: Are the instructional formats consistent from lesson to lesson so students can focus their cognitive energy on learning the new skill?
Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction is the Key to Equity
Literacy—the ability to read, write, and communicate productively—is essential to academic success, which in turn provides equitable opportunities for each student.
Empowering teachers with the knowledge and educational technology tools they need to deliver an equitable, Structured Literacy curriculum will help all students reach their potential, and help close the gap between student capability and proficiency. Understanding what is constituted as Structured Literacy (and, maybe more importantly, what isn’t) can be complicated, which is why we offer Education Insights like this one, written by Dr. Suzanne Carreker. Here you can learn some evidence-backed techniques to bring the science of reading into your classroom for immediate student gains.
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