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Teach students to master the foundations of literacy

A dean of curriculum shares how shifting learning toward mastery in reading and writing is promoting student achievement across subjects.

6 min read


Teach students to master the foundations of literacy

Photo credit: Melissa Douglas

It’s easy for students to learn something quickly and demonstrate that knowledge, but we want them to be able to hold on to their learning for as long as possible, ideally forever. At Illinois’ Rockford Public Schools, before we piloted our new reading program, there were many gaps in foundational reading skills across classrooms. We made changes to our curriculum, and now aim for students to achieve mastery of literacy concepts before moving on to a more advanced topic. 

Our implementation of a cohesive resource to support the foundations of literacy was split into two years. Starting in 2017, curriculum leaders and a team of teachers collaborated to identify the needs for a new program of instruction. Rockford is a large district, so it’s an ongoing process to provide instruction that is consistent across all buildings. In order to support all students, it is important to have a common language and program of instruction in literacy. Once the district decided on its resources, we designed an implementation plan and set expectations.

Setting expectations and goals

Rockford Public Schools has made two major shifts in literacy. The implementation of our new reading program, Reading Horizons Discovery, was the first shift. The second implementation, Integrated Literacy, rolled out this school year.

We know that understanding the “why” behind change is helpful and builds trust with our educators. Our district strives to support research-based instruction, best practices and growth. Because of this, certain aspects of literacy instruction are expected each day. These teacher and student expectations include the following: utilizing our reading program, modeled instruction with authentic texts, independent reading, writing about reading, writing aligned to standards, authentic vocabulary practice, small group instruction and opportunities to demonstrate mastery of skills. Educators have made changes to their teaching approach to include more inquiry, collaboration, investigation and student research.

Daily district expectations include the following:

  • 25-30 minutes of whole-group instruction with Reading Horizons Discovery. It includes all four parts of the framework and we supplement with pre-approved resources when needed
  • 15-20 minutes of the software to support differentiation
  • Transfer during small group and student work using little books, transfer cards and games
  • Encouraged daily use of data to drive next steps for instruction

Professional development to support our goals

The more comfortable our educators get with the program of instruction, the more explicit and systematic it will look in the classroom, which will promote even more growth. But to start, we saw that teachers were nervous about starting something new. We didn’t want teachers to feel rushed in their implementation. We wanted them to know that for our students to be strong readers and writers for life, they need to master certain skills for foundational literacy. The success of our students relied on the success of our teachers learning the ropes.

The plan was designed to build teacher capacity in understanding and teaching the explicit, systematic, research-based foundational program. This plan included the following support:

  • Two full days of training before the first day of school for anyone who is new to teaching the program
  • Monthly web trainings offered in each building and districtwide
  • Two in-person coaching sessions each year

Our district instructional coaches and I are in the process of becoming certified trainers in the program. The goal is for each elementary building to have a certified trainer. Having in-house trainers will ensure that educators in training will get the support they need to use the program successfully.

The impact of our two-year plan

This implementation plan has provided K–3 students with the same program of instruction. Our district goal is for our students to master foundational skills in reading, and we support our teachers in teaching to mastery. Sometimes students memorize sight words and develop tricks that help them get by in school, but our district wants to build a foundation that supports lifelong readers.

“The biggest challenge has been to make sure teachers are teaching the program with fidelity,” said Carolyn Timm, principal of Cherry Valley Elementary. “We’ve been reassuring educators that leaving old resources behind to make room for new, more effective tools is crucial to student success and mastery of reading concepts. This challenge has been overcome by supporting the teachers through coaching cycles and allowing them to ‘fill in’ as they see fit.”

We’ve seen major improvements in student achievement. For example, one kindergarten classroom has seen a 166% growth in literacy scores from fall 2018 to this winter. Data and community expectations can add pressure to meet specific growth numbers, and the key is to find a balance between the two goals. In Rockford, this balance includes benchmarks with the disclaimer that our students must master skills before moving on to other skills. The benchmarks help support best-practice in differentiation and data analysis. The vision to support lifelong literacy is supported by the expectation of mastery.

Teaching the full literacy skillset

Why have we made these two instructional shifts within two years? Because our students deserve the opportunity to engage in on-purpose learning and to feel confident in their literacy skillset. Our district wants to support teacher and student growth, and growth comes with time. There are endless reasons why we could have continued our old ways, but we wanted effective consistency districtwide.

We needed more than just a quick fix, so we developed our plan with the long game in mind. Whether students are reading text, writing about text, speaking or listening, we want to see those skills transfer to their work, no matter the subject. Behind that student success is a smooth process backed up by educators and curriculum leaders.

Reading and writing are like breathing in and breathing out. I try to emphasize that when I meet with teachers. If students are reading about something, then they need to be writing about something, because that helps to improve comprehension and writing skills in general.

Mellissa Douglas is the dean of curriculum elementary literacy for Rockford Public Schools in Illinois. Douglas implemented the Reading Horizons Discovery software at the beginning of the current school year.


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