Issue 2: Curriculum and Instruction Does Not Align with the Research
Curriculum and Decoding Words
Students learn new words through a process called orthographic mapping (see video below). Structured Literacy is an essential component of word-level reading (decoding) to help students understand the structure of our language. Some schools may have a formal phonics program, but the rest of their English Language Arts programs rely on leveled-literacy and reading workshop models (the creator of the workshop model Lucy Calkins admitted the flaws of her framework). Why is this a problem? In part of the lesson kids may be taught how to sound out words to decode, but the strategies they are taught in other portions of their literacy block do not reinforce phoneme (sound)-grapheme (letter) correspondence necessary to attain automaticity for fluent reading. Instead students are taught to be "problem-solvers" when they struggle to recognize a novel word. Using context clues is meant for understanding what a word means, not how to decode which is a necessary step to map the word to long-term memory.
Curriculum and Knowledge Building
Many popular reading programs focus on independent reading in leveled books instead of thematic units that build content knowledge. These programs focus on broad strategies. While strategies have a place in teaching comprehension skills, some programs neglect building background knowledge and explicitly teaching vocabulary. Vocabulary knowledge and building background knowledge are two important components to support reading comprehension once students learn how to decode words fluently (especially important in schools with high multilingual populations). Curriculum that aligns with scientifically-based reading would include complex and content rich texts, read alouds, teaching about text structure, and explicit vocabulary instruction.
Reading relies on a student's ability to quickly and effortlessly read the words on a given passage and connect those those words to vocabulary they have heard or were taught.
Has your district used the K – 2 Curriculum Materials Review: Foundational Skills for Reading created by RIDE?
Are educators teaching the foundational skills for reading in a diagnostic and prescriptive way? What evidence can the school provide that they are finding children with weaknesses in the foundational skills and addressing those weaknesses?
If students are struggling with word level reading, teachers will need data on the phonological awareness skills needed for decoding words to identify appropriate interventions (not a one-size-fits-all model).
Tier 1 instruction should have explicit systematic phonics for decoding and systems for progress monitoring. Language comprehension can be strengthened through read alouds, explicit vocabulary instruction, and content rich curriculum.
Decoding words should not be the only focus of curriculum and instruction, but it is a component that is often misunderstood leading to poor reading proficiency. Too often it is treated as a task that was completed as part of a literacy block. Mastery of skills should be the goal for all students.
Use this helpful guide to ask questions about your district's literacy curriculum created by the Right to Read Project.
If teachers are using the following methods to help students decode words, they are essentially teaching children to bypass orthographic mapping making word-level reading challenging:
Use picture cues to decode new words
Asking question prompts like "what word makes sense in the sentence?" (This technique is often called "problem-solving") to identify unknown words instead of teaching them the structure of language
Look at the first letter (then guess/"problem-solve")
Look at shapes of words
Asking students to "memorize" whole words/sight words/power words as core instruction in early stages without paying attention to sound-letter correspondence
Students spend a large amount of the ELA block on leveled books
Beware of curriculum that asks students to look away from the word when they don't recognize it!