Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections, Tools and Resources

Striving for Foundational Excellence

Country Heights' Journey Through Foundational Skills Instruction

Country Heights has a wonderful staff of teachers who believe every child is capable of greatness, and live by our mission statement, “Building Lifelong Leaders and Learners.” Since I arrived in 2015 as a Literacy Coach, my passion has been fitting the pieces of the literacy puzzle together for our struggling learners. One of those pieces was – and is – foundational skills.

We have great teachers reading quality texts and providing rich instruction for students, but the missing piece was the lack of a systematic foundational skills instruction. We didn’t have a curriculum or even a sequence of skills to guide our work. We were struggling with our core practice as much as with intervention. I would pull our struggling learners, give them the Phonological Awareness and Phonics Assessments from Core Publications, and teach the deficit skills. While this process was helping those specific students, it really was just putting a band-aid on the real wound.

Learning Together and Developing a Common Language

We knew we needed something, but we weren’t sure what it was. Our principal attended a Student Achievement Partners conference and learned about the Achieve the Core Foundational Skills Mini-Course with David Liben and Carey Swanson. We decided this would be a great start and would give our primary teachers a chance to develop a common language, learn from experts, and build the foundational skills toolkit that would allow us to tackle the task ahead.

Our first step was to go through the course together. Each week, a member of the leadership team met with their partnered grade level (kindergarten, first, and second) during PLC time, to watch a video and engage in conversations around pedagogy, developmentally appropriate content, and student engagement. Second grade teacher Allie Lindow shared these thoughts from that learning experience:

Seeing how valuable and vital foundational literacy skills are within these grades has totally shifted my instruction. I began my teaching journey not following a specific curriculum. I was pulling resources left and right to attach to a standard, but not fully understanding if it truly met the objective of the standard. I knew that my students needed more. When I transferred to Country Heights after my fifth year, I was amazed at the passion the leadership had for excellent literacy instruction. However, they too were pulling resources from various places. Teachers are doing as much as they could with the resources they had to meet the needs of the students. However, gaps were forming within our literacy skills.

Completing the mini-course together allowed us to accomplish our goal of developing a common language around foundational learning, and from there we were able to evaluate our practice and determine our plan of action.

Putting the Learning into Practice

Our first step was the implementation of the phonemic awareness and phonics screener. We knew gaps existed, but we had not pinpointed them in a formalized way for all students other than our struggling learners. Our screener helped guide us in determining grade-level instructional needs and providing intervention, but we were still missing the systematic approach to phonological and phonics instruction for all students. Now, we were on the hunt for a core curriculum.

The leadership team found a curriculum that we felt fit the needs of all of our stakeholders, but we wanted our teachers to have ownership in adoption and implementation. We designed our summer professional learning to continue growing our knowledge of foundation skills and also to allow teachers to evaluate the core curriculum we’d identified – “Fundations” by Wilson Language Company.

We began with a deep dive into standards. We had the teams sort the foundational standards into the four categories (print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency) and by grade level. Each team then redefined their understanding of grade-level expectations by answering the questions, “What should my students be able to do when they leave my grade? What standards are introductory and which ones are mastered?” We then revisited our learning from the mini-course and developed our belief statement around foundational skills instruction for our primary grades.

That belief statement guided our work in scrutinizing the “Fundations” curriculum. The teams explored their grade-level scope and sequence, the included standards, protocols, activities, and resources, as well as developmental appropriateness. We also considered the promise of Geodes, readable text that correlates to our Wit and Wisdom curriculum, while allowing practice of taught phonics skills. All factors considered, we unanimously agreed this curriculum would be a perfect addition to our literacy instruction.

Because we were able to spend this time learning together, we: defined our core beliefs around foundational instruction, adopted a curriculum that meets the professional learning needs of our teachers, as well as the systematic instructional needs of our students, and solidified a community of teachers that make instructional decisions around pedagogy and content that continues to guide our work.

Looking Ahead

We believe wholeheartedly in Liben’s tagline from the mini-course, that this systematic approach is “Good for all but critical for some.” While we initially used the mini-course to begin discussions in our PLCs, it actually helped us to kick off an ongoing professional learning journey of placing our literacy puzzle pieces and making the adjustments we need to make to meet the needs of our students. Because we took the time to develop a common language and understanding, our teachers are able to continue to build their knowledge of foundational skills together, and to dive more effectively into the curriculum, data analysis, and intervention work than we ever could before. The standards are being met, intervention is taking place, and, most importantly, students are learning to read – and falling in love with reading in the process.

One thought on “Striving for Foundational Excellence

  1. Hello,

    I teach grade 1. With a lack of funding and guidance we are struggling with which direction to go in after still using the dated Storytown program with continued flat reading scores…

    I have some questions:

    What phonemic awareness and phonics screener did you use?

    Does your phonics skills instruction include decodable readers? Which ones?

    Does your comprehension skills separate then and is instruction taught from read alouds only? Or trade books? Scholastic, Lerner?

    Are your kiddos grouped by phonetic need in small groups? ( instead of guided reading groups or guided reading groups)
    If so are they also reading independently to master individualized fluency ? Reading a-z books? in a reading workshop?

    I’m all over the place with all of these different ideas, strategies, materials, philosophies.
    ( Vermont Schools, Achieve Core, Engage NY,etc)
    Also with a huge group of push back coworkers.

    I loved your story of how it should really be.
    I’m ready to resign from ELA Committee.

    Petrice 😉

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About the Author: Shiryl McAdams is in her 5th year as a Literacy Coach/Interventionist for Country Heights Elementary School in Daviess County Kentucky, and 6th year as a Literacy Coach. She has taught for 17 years in Kentucky and Florida and earned National Board Certification in Reading and Literacy for Early to Middle Childhood, as well as, a Master's Degree in Reading and Literacy. She has a passion for creating confident and capable readers, who are ready to take risks and achieve their own personal greatness. She loves partnering with teachers and students on this life-long journey of literacy for all.

About the Author: Allie Lindow is a second grade teacher at Country Heights Elementary School in Daviess County, Kentucky. This is her ninth year teaching, and she has taught kindergarten through second grade. She has a passion for foundational literacy skills and instruction in the primary grades. She has a Master's degree as a Literacy Specialist and is currently working on completing her National Board Certification in Early and Middle Childhood Literacy. As a teacher and learner, she loves learning and implementing the best practices to meet the needs of her students.