The Essential Elements of an ELA Curriculum

Standards co-author Susan Pimentel explains how the elements of a high-quality ELA program contribute to student learning. She pinpoints where many current programs are missing the mark.

Curriculum plays a central role regarding what students are taught.  So, it’s no surprise that a strong body of evidence shows placing a high-quality curriculum in the hands of teachers can significantly impact student achievement:

  • In a well-known randomized experiment, the Center for American Progress found that the average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching to a better curriculum was almost 40 times that of class-size reduction.
  • A study by the Brookings Institute showed that choosing a better second-grade mathematics curriculum was more effective than replacing an average teacher with an above average one.

These and other studies like them make a strong case that focusing on high-quality instructional materials can provide marked increases in student achievement.

So what’s essential in a high-quality ELA curriculum? Three focus areas accelerate student literacy and lead to learning gains.

  • Foundational skills (i.e., decoding and fluency)
  • Close reading of quality, complex texts
  • Volume of reading on relevant topics to build vocabularies and knowledge.

Understanding each focus area leads to a robust understanding of how a high-quality curriculum contributes to genuine student learning.

Foundational Skills

A large body of research shows that students who systematically develop decoding knowledge of the spelling/sound patterns of English—and are given the opportunity to regularly apply their understanding in practice—become markedly more fluent readers.  Students who don’t “crack the code” by grade 3 fall behind and seldom catch up. In short, acquiring these foundational skills is the difference between their future success or failure; it’s the difference between reading being a pleasure or a chore.

Close Reading of Quality, Complex Texts

Also essential to literacy is the ability to closely read complex text—to understand what it says and how it says it. Struggling readers traditionally have not been allowed to experience reading complex texts.  Successful ELA programs build the confidence and competence of these students through engaging them in multiple readings of grade-appropriate complex text for different purposes. It also means scaffolding the reading experience through a series of text-dependent and text-specific questions and other supports. Simply put, close reading provides all students with the opportunity to engage with the rich complex text that is critical for keeping their post-secondary dreams alive.

Volume of Reading

Equally important to foundational skills and close reading is the emphasis placed on the sheer amount of reading students do—both free choice and reading connected to the curriculum. Unless students continue to grow their vocabulary and knowledge, they will not be able to understand the complex text demanded by the standards and essential to college and career readiness. There simply is no better way to develop vocabulary and knowledge—especially with struggling readers—other than consistent opportunities for them to engage in a high volume of reading on a variety of topics at a range of complexities.

Where do current programs fall on the continuum of these three attributes? In 2010, Student Achievement Partners (SAP) looked at top-selling basals. Passages, for the most part, fell within the complexity band ranges for the grade. But tasks were disappointing—many were shallow and plainly irrelevant to what students were reading. As much as 70 percent of the questions meant to be tied to the texts were not text-dependent. Students didn’t have to carefully read the texts to respond—in fact, as often as not, students didn’t have to read the text at all!

Six years later, there is good news to share, however. Some new programs that have come on the market have addressed these concerns and are worthy of consideration.  Overall, the practice of asking students to extract evidence from texts has become a baseline expectation in curricular materials.

If you aren’t able to purchase these new and better materials, there are still things you can do.  Here are two concrete suggestions/modifications to pursue with your current curriculum to address the three focus areas noted above:

  1. Create your own questions for close reading. Get together with your colleagues and rewrite the questions in the program you are teaching from. Don’t worry about writing beautiful questions—write questions that will lead students to investigate what the author is saying. Follow SAP’s various guides for writing text-dependent questions to assist you, or use the Read Aloud Project, Basal Alignment Project, and/or Anthology Alignment Project materials that offer replacement lessons for several basal readers.
  2. Add text sets that provide a volume of reading on specific topics to support your learners in building background knowledge and vocabulary. Build your own or use the ones available from SAP (more are on the way!)

SAP is committed to supporting teachers no matter what curriculum they work with.  Watch this space and come back soon!

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About the Author: Susan Pimentel was a lead writer of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy and is a Founding Partner of Student Achievement Partners. Susan’s efforts have been focused on helping communities, districts and states across the nation work together to advance education reform and champion proven tools for increasing academic rigor. Her work has resulted in the phase-out of student tracking, enriched core curricula, and advances in results-based school accountability programs. Susan also has led several national improvement efforts, including two multi-state adult education reform initiatives under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Adult and Vocational Education (OVAE), and the development of content for the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence—a rigorous discipline-specific national teacher test. Susan holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and a law degree from Cornell University. Since 2007, she has served on the National Assessment Governing Board that advises on the nation's report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In addition to several articles, Susan is co-author with Denis P. Doyle of the best-selling book and CD-ROM, Raising the Standard: An Eight-Step Action Guide For Schools and Communities.