English language arts (ELA) standards identify a set of foundational skills students must master in their progression to becoming skilled readers. These skills include alphabet recognition, concepts of print, phonological awareness, phonics, high-frequency words, and fluency.
To effectively teach foundational skills within the classroom, educators need access to engaging materials that offer the right level of challenge for students and provide ease of usability. Unfortunately, only 7 percent of K-5 teachers use one or more high-quality ELA material for their classroom instruction due to common roadblocks like long adoption cycles and costs associated with the materials. But that statistic may soon change.
The pandemic left a lasting, negative impact on the American education system. K-5 student test scores plummeted in math and reading nationwide this year, erasing two decades of progress. Now, many teachers, schools, and districts want to reassess their foundational skills instruction.
To start, teachers should follow these five tips:
1. Consider a new curriculum
Certain red flags signal that it’s time for a new foundational skills curriculum to support students.
- One-letter-a-week alphabet instruction: Children with low alphabet knowledge benefit from faster alphabet introductions because it allows more time for repeated exposure and more opportunities to practice and reteach letters as needed. Letter knowledge should also include letter-sound correspondence.
- Phonetic awareness neglect: Reading success depends on phonemic awareness, including isolating, segmenting, and blending phonemes. Children as young as preschool age can (and should) engage in phonemic awareness activities. Students do not need to master phonological awareness tasks to begin work in phonemic awareness.
- Little to no spelling of decodable words: Spelling helps students with orthographic word mapping. Students who succeed with spelling early are also more likely to develop into stronger readers. Spelling should be linked to phonics skills being taught, and there should be increased opportunities for students to write words with their new phonics skills.
- No connected decodable texts: Decodable texts provide an excellent opportunity to apply new phonetic patterns. Reading books with most of the phonetic elements taught supports fluency skills as well.
- Lacking a scope or sequence or a spiraled review cycle: Teachers need an opportunity to place students at their instructional points of need and educate them in a systematic way. An effective scope and sequence will also include a review cycle, as students need many exposures to new concepts and skills to affirm mastery.
These red flags indicate a need to reconsider a reading program because beginning readers require a solid foundation on which to build vocabulary and comprehension.
2. Bolster any curriculum with supplements
Whether or not a teacher revamps their curriculum, adding helpful components provides much-needed support. Supplemental materials, for example, can help personalize the learning experience with engaging resources that:
- Support students at their own pace.
- Represent students of all backgrounds.
- Engage all students based on their interests.
- Encourage students and build a joy for learning.
Supplemental materials designed to offer flexibility and personalization work hand-in-hand with a comprehensive program.
3. Prioritize quality over quantity
Suggestions vary widely on how much time teachers should dedicate to building foundational skills. However, most researchers advise that in the early grades, instructors spend between 45 to 60 minutes each day teaching foundational skills — via independent, self-paced or group learning. Quality of instruction is key. Instructional time may vary based on student needs, but teachers don’t have to spend all day on foundational skills to effectively help their students, especially when they include time for practice.
4. Practice, practice, practice
During each day’s allotted time for foundational skills, students need time to practice their new skills and review previous lessons. Students achieve higher gains when teachers pack foundational skills instructions with frequent practice opportunities. One rule of thumb? Teachers should provide a lot of opportunities for students to engage verbally during lessons. They can then gauge understanding and mastery of skills and support their students by giving corrective feedback.
5. Use instructional routines that work
As teachers adjust their foundational skills instruction, they may wonder how to gauge the effectiveness of their new routines. Educators should evaluate instructional routines based on the skill. For example, when assessing an instructional routine for blending phonemes, a teacher would determine if students were blending with more proficiency and then introduce words with more sounds.
Overall, environments where students actively and consistently engage in listening for sounds or words, speaking sounds or words, reading words and sentences and writing letters, words and sentences see higher student learning gains.
Throughout the school day, children read and write a lot in every subject — and they may find themselves stymied by a word in a math problem or a written note during a science experiment. Teachers should treat these challenges as opportunities to integrate foundational skills, helping students master their reading and writing skills in context. By taking advantage of these teachable moments, teachers help students transfer their skills into real-world contexts and empower them to become better communicators, readers, and writers to succeed in school — and beyond.
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