Materials Adaptation, Research and Reflections
Part 3 of Adapting Materials Project

What Needs to Change in Instructional Materials: ELA

A panel of experts pinpointed the biggest problems with today’s ELA/literacy materials

The goal of the Adapting Materials Project was to create adaptations that address some of the most problematic weaknesses in existing instructional materials that caused them to be misaligned with the Common Core. To help ensure that the adaptations would tackle the most widespread and critical needs in today’s ELA/literacy materials, an ELA/literacy expert panel met in January 2015 to identify the areas where current instructional materials routinely missed the mark when it came to Common Core alignment. Armed with this list of problem areas, those working on adapting materials would know where to concentrate their efforts.

The panel included members from across the field of elementary literacy instruction, each contributing specialized knowledge and experience to the conversation:

  • Marylyn Adams – respected leader in early literacy instruction
  • Kate Gerson – leader of the EngageNY development process
  • David Liben – organizer of the research behind the Common Core State Standards for ELA/Literacy; experienced public school principal
  • Lilly Wong-Fillmore – premier researcher and professor in ELL instruction from Stanford University
  • A select number of school- and district-based educators (curriculum writers, literacy coaches, etc.) who provided the insights of current practitioners

The expert panel identified three key areas of focus for improving Common Core alignment of current instructional materials. These were the issues that participants in the Adapting Materials Project were asked to address in their adaptations. Simultaneously, Achieve also publicized a “call to action,” seeking educators to submit high-quality open educational resources (OER) that address the problem areas identified by the panel.

  1. Speaking and Listening –

While the reading and writing standards seem to get a fair amount of attention throughout most materials that claim to be Common Core-aligned, the panel found that instruction targeting key speaking and listening skills is lacking. For example, many materials engage students in basic activities like “turn and talk,” but rarely include text-specific structures like conversation starters, listening cues, or rubrics to evaluate students’ oral responses.

  1. Supports for English language learners –

Many current ELA/literacy materials include additional, but often generic, instructions for modifying materials for English language learners (ELLs) resulting in activities that actually remove students from the central instruction provided to their peers. For example, existing materials commonly suggest providing alternate less-complex texts for ELL students. The experts on the panel described wanting to see more materials that actually integrate supports into the core instruction thus making every effort to engage ELL’s with materials that are on-grade-level and appropriately complex. For example, materials should include specific suggestions about particular excerpts from the central texts that may be worthy of additional time for ELL students.

  1. Topical reading and writing –

Some materials attempt to include reading in the content areas (such as science and social studies) and others attempt to make clearer connections between reading and writing activities; very few materials do both, however. The expert panel identified a need for materials that are intentionally organized to build student knowledge around key science and socials studies topics while also providing instruction and writing tasks designed for students to demonstrate that knowledge.

What these findings mean for all teachers

Identifying and clearly describing these weaknesses in existing materials help teachers recognize where materials are strong, and where they should focus time, energy, and resources to improve materials where changes are needed most. Teachers now have the sound advice of experts in the field to help guide their efforts.

Calling attention to these areas of focus has been empowering for educators. The priorities identified by the expert panel can be reasonably addressed by teachers during the typical planning process. Many educators do not have flexibility or choice when it comes to the materials they use, but they do have the power to adapt those materials to deliver high-quality, Common Core-aligned lessons that help students meet the Standards.

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About the Author: Rachel Etienne is a member of the Literacy and English Language Arts team at Student Achievement Partners. Rachel consults with various districts, states, and organizations on Common Core State Standards implementation. Rachel has 13 years of experience in literacy education as an elementary classroom teacher and as a literacy coach for several nationally recognized charter schools, the NYC Department of Education, and the Archdiocese of New York. Rachel holds a bachelor’s degree in Science Education from Eastern Michigan University.