Unpacking My Unfinished Learning On Literacy

As a lifelong educator, I feel confident saying that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to how kids learn to read. At least I did until experiences over the last several years forced me to confront an ugly truth: I did it wrong.

I did it wrong for a lot of years, and during that time I saw others do it wrong and didn’t know to correct them. But now I know better, so I’m determined to help others learn the things I’ve learned, so that we can all do better for Tennessee kids.

In my current role, I have the tremendous privilege of working with a network of Tennessee districts, the LIFT network, who come together to collectively address a problem of practice. Since 2016, that problem of practice has been early literacy, and they have addressed it by putting strong instructional materials in the hands of teachers and providing support to teachers and leaders to implement them well. Because of that work, they’ve seen phenomenal results:

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  • Comparing the one-year growth of students in third-grade ELA classrooms in LIFT districts to the state, students in LIFT districts grew at a rate 25 times more than students across the state as a whole.
  • Seven out of nine original LIFT districts were designated as advancing or exemplary districts.
  • Twenty elementary/intermediate schools across the LIFT network were named by the state as reward schools, and four schools jumped from a TVAAS score of 1 to a TVAAS score of 5 in ELA.

These results are only a glimpse of the impressive things that happen when teachers are supported to implement evidence-based literacy instruction.

Through this work, I’ve learned a lot about how kids actually learn to read, and I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s quite simple: 1) Provide explicit, systematic foundational skills instruction in K-2, and 2) help all students, even our youngest learners, build knowledge on meaningful content from the first day they enter our schools.

Systematic foundational skills instruction is not just the typical ‘Letter of the Week’ lesson in which students learn what letters look like, what sound they make, and memorize some common words that begin with those letters. It is more than “A is for apple and B is for ball.” Systematic foundational skills instruction means that pre-determined skills are taught directly and in a logical progression. This should start in kindergarten and be a daily part of a comprehensive literacy block.

Helping students build knowledge is more than just a unit on polar bears. It is engaging students in rich topics like the human body, the solar system, early Americans, and so on. Units of study focused on topics, rather than themes, that are spiraled from year to year allow students to develop deep expertise that increases engagement and ensures the knowledge will stick.

We often shy away from providing our youngest learners with opportunities to dig into rich content, fearing that it’s not developmentally appropriate, but when systematic foundational skills instruction and comprehensive knowledge-building combine, powerful things happen for kids. Helping students crack the code of reading through foundational skills instruction while simultaneously building their background knowledge allows them to engage in increasingly complex learning as they progress through elementary school.

On a recent school visit to Sullivan County, I saw a fourth-grade student make a powerful connection between Rosa Parks and King Arthur — both were fighting for equality. Rosa Parks did this through her activism, and King Arthur did this by having his knights sit at a round table so that no one person’s voice was louder than another.

If this feels like unfinished learning for you as well, you need not feel ashamed. When we know better, we do better, but the impetus is on us to never stop learning. We invite you to learn along with us by reading our new report The Science of Reading: If We Know Better, We Must Do Better. We also invite you to join us at our Early Literacy Summit on Monday, March 9, where we will dig into this topic deeply and hear from renowned journalist Natalie Wexler about what can be done to close the knowledge gap for kids.

Dr. Sharon Roberts is chief k-12 impact officer at SCORE.