Let’s say that you are ready for a new reading curriculum for any number of reasons, chief among them: a persistent percentage of your students aren’t thriving in literacy learning and are falling behind. Or you imagine that more of your students could achieve at even higher levels. Changing curriculum requires a hefty investment of time and resources and is consequential for your students and staff. The good news is you don’t have to go it alone. Countless teachers, researchers, schools, and other organizations have paved the way for you. Lean on their experience and expertise. Below you will find guidance that will be useful for those who have decided that adopting a new ELA curriculum is the right move for their students and teachers.
Check on the College- and Career-Ready (CCR) Standards-Alignment of Curriculum Options You Are Considering.
CCR standards are anchored in the crucial reading research elements: systematic, explicit reading acquisition skills; inclusion of quality, complex texts; vocabulary study and language development; and evidence-based discussions and writing. Foundational skills instruction includes print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency. Explicit, systematic instruction of foundational reading skills is critical in early elementary school. Students’ ability to read complex text independently and proficiently is essential, not only for success in life, work, and postsecondary education, but also so that students in elementary grades can progress to text with more vibrant ideas expressed in more profound ways as their knowledge and skills deepen. The importance of students building knowledge and acquiring a rich and varied vocabulary is critical—both are inextricably connected to reading comprehension.
You will want to select materials that genuinely align with your state’s CCR standards. These standards are (1) evidence-based, (2) aligned with college and work expectations, (3) rigorous, and (4) internationally benchmarked. Standards were included in these documents only when the best available evidence indicated that its mastery was essential for college and career readiness in a twenty-first century, globally competitive society. Bottom line, such standards will include what the evidence says students need to master to keep their postsecondary dreams alive.
How can you learn more about a curriculum’s alignment to CCR standards efficiently? Start by exploring reviews that have already been completed.
Back in 2017, Student Achievement Partners spent some time making a case for evidence-based reviews (conducted by states or independent organizations) of materials’ alignment to college- and career-ready standards. A lot can be learned from the review process itself, and there are a variety of review tools to support educators in this work. This quick review tool is one such option. If you are looking for already conducted reviews, EdReports.org has hundreds of free, detailed reviews (conducted by trained educator reviewers) about the majority of the most widely used programs. The Louisiana Department of Education and MA Curate are other, state-led sources of high-quality reviews. If you’re looking for a free, open educational resource, check out Washington State’s reviews. EdReports.org designates programs as “Meets Expectations” (green) “Partially Meets Expectations” (yellow) and “Does Not Meet Expectations” (red) in their reviews. Programs with a “Does Not Meet Expectations” (red) rating are considered unaligned. Louisiana uses “Tier 3” to indicate those materials that do not meet non-negotiable criteria for standards alignment and quality.
Eliminate programs that receive a “red” or “Tier 3” rating from your search.
Next, Pay Special Attention to the Scientifically Validated Practices in Reading Instruction as Embodied in the Curriculum Options.
Standards define “what” should be taught. Standards do not—and are not designed to—tell you “how” to teach the “what” with nuance and fidelity. The same research base that underpins college- and career-ready standards—the reading research referenced above—can be used to understand more about the implications of instructional approaches and decisions that are built into the design of a curriculum. Understanding evidence-based pedagogical approaches and how they appear in curriculum is a natural complement to your knowing a program is standards-aligned. Further, this additional review will include factors that a review of standards-alignment alone can’t quite capture.
Take complex texts. CCR standards require that students are able to read and comprehend complex grade-level texts. But once you know that a program features sufficiently complex anchor texts, then you need to find out what the program says about who’s actually reading the texts: Teachers through read-alouds? Students themselves? What activities are included to prepare students to understand the anchor texts? What does the curriculum ask teachers to do to assist students in uncovering the central meanings and key details of the text? Does the program provide research-based strategies for students who need additional supports to engage fully with the texts?
A second example is reading fluency. While a standards-focused review will help you eliminate programs that don’t feature fluency practice, you also need to determine which research-based practices are reflected in a given program’s fluency component. For instance, does fluency practice include modeling of fluent reading through choral reading, buddy reading, or modeling by a proficient reader? How much time is allocated to fluency practice? Does it include repeated readings with the same text to allow for mastery of all three components (speed, accuracy, and prosody) of reading fluency? How often are students assessed? How are teachers directed to determine fluency levels?
Here’s a model (and extensive citation list) to consider: Comparing Reading Research to Program Design: An Examination of Teachers College Units of Study. The goal of this paper, and of this type of review more generally, is to make transparent the research-based practices that should be evident in curricular programs in fundamental areas of reading and language development.
Seven preeminent literacy experts weighed in on the evidence-based practice approaches to the standards-aligned topics of reading instruction: phonics and fluency; text complexity and language development; and knowledge building and vocabulary. An introduction to each of the three research-based elements lays out succinctly what the research demands in terms of instruction. Each reviewer offers strengths and critiques, rooted in literacy research, to paint a picture of what works and what could be better in service to young learners. Each strength presented represents an area of instruction to amplify. Likewise, each critique offers an opportunity to redesign, adjust, or choose again to introduce practices in that area that are research-proven.
Okay. Time to kick out additional curricular options that fail to adequately follow the enormous body of research underpinning instructional practice on the key elements: phonics and fluency, text complexity and language development, and building background knowledge and vocabulary.
Pay Attention to the Sufficiency of English Learner Supports.
The number of English learners (ELs) joining our classrooms around the nation is growing dramatically. They face the double-barreled challenge of learning enough of a second language (English) to participate successfully in grade-level academic classes and gaining the disciplinary knowledge and skills they need to be prepared for college and careers enmeshed within that second language. The challenge is not insurmountable, however, as proven by the fact that many students who enter school as ELs attain English proficiency and learn academics are reclassified as fluent, make good grades, and graduate high school with their postsecondary ambitions intact. But neither is the challenge inconsequential and the right teaching matters.
The foundation of effective literacy practices for English learners is the same as effective literacy practices for students in general: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension instruction, and ample opportunities to engage in meaningful and motivating reading and writing. However, because English learners not in bilingual programs face the dual challenge of learning English as they learn to read and write in English, effective programs must provide additional supports to help teachers and students navigate the more complex challenges. Pay special attention to this aspect of assessing for scientifically validated practices as described in the curriculum.
The previously mentioned review of Units of Study provides specific focus in this area in Dr. Claude Goldenburg’s analysis. Another excellent approach is to review the curricular options against the rubrics from the English Learner Success Forum.
Still Have Promising Curricular Contenders? Now Find the Best Fit for Your School.
You may find that you have several curricular choices from which to choose that are CCR standards-aligned, with practices aligned to the research about reading instruction, including offering ample and explicit supports to ELs. Looking at standards-alignment reviews such as those from EdReports, you won’t see recommendations for what you should buy; this decision is unique to your school. Now what?
We recommend you leverage the work of other schools that have embarked on adopting new curricula and are having success. Personnel at those schools can tell you about their productive struggles to implement a new curriculum. Both StandardsWork, through its Knowledge Matters Tour, and Instruction Partners, through its work advising districts (see its Curriculum Support Guide), have done years of action research in the field. Both have created free online resources to share best practices from real schools and districts selecting new programs. Some questions to ask: Do they have evidence of positive student outcomes? How long did it take? Does the curriculum they adopted include educative features and support materials for teachers? Is it relatively easy for all teachers to learn and implement? What elements of professional learning did they achieve? How affordable was it? What worked? What didn’t?
So much is known about what effective approaches and content look like—there is no need to go it alone.
When it comes to our students, the stakes are too high and the investment too heavy to do anything less than a robust review process when selecting new ELA instructional materials. We’d love to hear from you! Did you consider other factors we haven’t listed here? Share ideas below in the comments to help others who are just embarking on this most consequential journey.