Am I doing this right??” Is a nervous refrain I’ve heard from teachers a lot more this school year than any other. They are usually asking me whether their reading and phonics instruction is adequately meeting the needs of their students. I attribute the uptick in this refrain to the frequency with which we are bombarded with workshop offerings and sensationalized articles about The Science of Reading. I am always thrilled to talk about brain research and systematic phonics instruction with interested educators and I love that this moment is prompting teachers to reflect on and even re-evaluate their practices and curriculum. 

But I also worry that the phrase “Science of Reading,” or “SoR,” is becoming a rigid, single entity with one particular meaning, rather than a body of research and understandings that inform our instructional and curricular decisions. It’s frustrating to see “SoR” be used to sell more tunnel-vision products or paint phonics as the only important component of reading research, rather than a key element among many. Dr. P.L. Thomas expressed this sentiment compellingly in his piece Radical Eyes for Equity: Reading Matters:  “The allure of SoR for the media, parents, and politicians is grounded in silver-bullet “all students must” thinking that is antithetical to the reasons I believe reading mattersit resists being student centered and allows far too often for reading to be reduced to decoding (systematic intensive phonics for all); further, while SoR advocates often demonize popular reading programs (and I am a strong critic of all reading programs), they make the same essential mistake by simply choosing different programs to endorse as rigid expectations for students and teachers...” 

So let’s dive deeper into how to look critically at our curriculum in order to cultivate a more flexible, thoughtful and inclusive approach to teaching reading.

You may recall in my second post that I talked about being a lifelong learner – I am never more excited and engaged as when I learn or understand something new. It may come as no surprise then that some of my most important growth as an educator happened when I was in graduate school. 

One of the most powerful parts of my Master’s program in Special Education was the practice I got in looking critically at curriculum and learning what effective literacy instruction could be like. Rather than learn how to use a specific curriculum, we learned all the components a curriculum should have to nurture a student’s reading and writing development. We learned how to look for those components and evaluate whether a curriculum was strong or weak based on what we found. Instead of just learning how to give a specific assessment, we learned how to create our own assessments based on what we were hoping to measure. Then we reflected on whether the data matched what we were trying to measure and if what we were measuring matched what we wanted to understand about our students. Did it help us know what they know? The knowledge I gained from these experiences and the way I learned to think about teaching and curriculum were invaluable.

Because these graduate school experiences inform so much of how I still operate as an educator, it has always seemed reasonable to me that teachers would look at curriculum provided by (or mandated by) their schools and see some parts of it that will be useful and effective for students, and other parts that will not be. Deciding what is useful or effective should be based on research and what we know happens in the brain when we try to make meaning of print. It may also depend on the number of students in a classroom, their literacy skill levels upon entering the classroom, whether students are new to learning English, what literacy approach they were exposed to the year before, how their social-emotional, self-regulation and executive functioning skills are developing, whether they have a language-based or other learning disability– the list goes on and on. So it also seems reasonable to be skeptical of anyone who suggests or offers one approach or curriculum that works for all students.

With all these variables in mind, there are some clear criteria for what instructional components all educators should have access to in their curriculum and/or teaching materials. Though there are many different words/phrases and graphics showing the components of literacy (and many folks who like to debate which is best), I like the Literacy How Reading Wheel.  I like how each component is visually depicted as equally important. Any curriculum that doesn’t develop all of these components will not meet the needs of any classroom. And yet, most curricula are indeed missing essential pieces of literacy instruction. Therefore, two questions we should be asking of any curriculum we are considering using (via Dr. Heidi L. Hallman, Professor at the University of Kansas): 

  • Does this program comprehensively cover each of the evidence-based areas or skills that students need to read proficiently? 
  • Has this program or approach been proven scientifically to work with students like mine? 

I’ve been lucky to work at a number of schools where I was able to observe different curriculums and approaches to teaching reading. Some schools wanted to provide a balanced literacy approach, but hadn’t actually achieved balance with adequate phonics instruction. There, I observed students who were so excited for their book shopping days, who took pride in books they had chosen and could read independently. These students made great growth in making connections between the books they read and their own experiences. But their decoding and spelling skills weren’t always stellar, especially once they reached 3rd grade. Another school took a structured literacy approach, exclusively providing a very intentional, systematic phonics curriculum that every classroom had to use, but hadn’t yet thought through what other literacy experiences students also need. There, students had a much deeper and more consistent understanding of decoding and spelling patterns, which helped them accurately and fluently read the decodable/controlled texts they had access to. But they did not have a lot of independent reading time or much practice in generalizing those skills to other, novel texts. They appeared less motivated to pick up a book simply for enjoyment. Students also expressed frustration in not having time to “just read” books they wanted to read – there weren’t as many opportunities for student choice and voice during literacy time.  All these schools were doing something really essential and powerful for their students, but each was also missing something essential. 

I’ve seen kindergarten classrooms supplement their main literacy curriculum with a multimodal phoneme sequencing program that helped students to discover and label the oral-motor movements of sounds. This made a huge impact on students who struggled with articulation, sound discrimination, phonological processing, or who might later have trouble with letter-sound correspondence. I’ve also spent years exploring Structured Word Inquiry, an incredible approach to teaching the structure of the written language using morphology, etymology and student-led inquiry. It took discovering this approach to realize that most other curriculum were sorely missing this component of literacy instruction.  

There are so many wonderful ways to engage students in language and reading, in thinking about what they read and write, and in actually building the discrete skills needed to fluently decode and spell. Therefore, it’s important for teachers and school leaders alike to look critically at the curriculum we have access to, think carefully about what we purchase or use and reflect on how to build a robust library of teaching materials, tools and resources. This is our best chance of meeting the most needs for the most kinds of learners across the most classrooms. 

As we work to find all the curricular pieces to build what we need, it can feel like there’s just too much to implement. The more individual programs we try and use with fidelity, the more thinly we are spreading our students and ourselves. I often daydream about an evidence-based integrated curriculum that DOES have all the essential components of literacy – an instructional approach that is structured but also flexible in implementation allowing us to meet each student at their skill and interest level, giving students the support and the autonomy they deserve.

Question to readers: Have you used a curriculum that has everything you want and need for your students? What do you hope to see in a literacy curriculum in the future?  Post your thoughts or daydreams in the comments.This is the fourth part of Emily’s six-part blog series. Emily’s fifth post, titled “Cultivating the tools to find and get what’s missing,” will be published in mid-May. Click below to sign up for email alerts on Emily’s upcoming posts.


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