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The Science of Reading at the Heart of Curriculum

“Without literacy, we can’t access our human rights,” says Yana, a 5th grader studying the EL Education curriculum in Detroit.

Yana puts it best. Foundational literacy skills unlock lifelong learning and the agency to shape one’s life and world. Educators broadly embrace the goal of early literacy education: to ensure all students have equitable access to excellent reading skills. But not all literacy curricula were created equal.

That’s one reason why recent news has been disorienting for many educators and administrators. EdReports, the leading independent evaluator of curriculum quality, published ratings for two of the most popular reading programs in the country: neither of them met expectations.

For those left wondering where to turn for literacy curriculum, there are options that meet EdReports expectations, align to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and have demonstrated success over decades in lifting equitable student achievement for all kids. What do these high quality curricula have in common? The science of reading points us in the right direction.

Grounding in the Science

The science of reading is less abstract than it sounds. It’s an interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about how we learn to read effectively.

Instruction that is informed by the science of reading is the only proven way to ensure students become proficient readers and confident learners.

It turns out that learning to read and write is not a natural act—rather, these interrelated skills require explicit, systematic, and cumulative instruction based on reading science (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018; Gough & Hillinger, 1980; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000; Seidenberg, 2017). Through the work of cognitive scientists over the course of 20+ years, we know that students need instruction in the foundational “building blocks” of reading: phonics (sounding out words), phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension.

The consensus in the reading science community is good news for students. With access to phonics and the other essentials, only 3-8% of children should struggle with reading (Foorman & Al Otaiba, 2009; Vellutino et al., 1996).

Even more encouraging, as Jennifer Buckingham says in her 2020 article, “Six Reasons to Teach Using the Science of Reading,” “Fewer children need intervention when the science of reading is applied. It is estimated that 80%-85% of children will learn to read well if provided with evidence-based classroom reading instruction from a highly knowledgeable teacher” (The Reading League Journal,1(1), 13-17).

Breathing Life into the Science of Reading

Some educators may worry that the science of reading equates to a dry or rote approach to literacy instruction. That doesn’t have to be true. The EL Education K–2 Language Arts Curriculum is a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction that supports students in knowledge-building and joyful participation in the world of text. There are two parts to the curriculum, both infused with science-based instructional practices:

  1. The EL Education K–2 Reading Foundations Skills Block: This phonics-based curriculum is grounded in reading science. It helps students crack the alphabetic code, become fluent readers, and, ultimately, comprehend text.
  2. The EL Education Content-Based Literacy Modules: This knowledge-building curriculum uses trade books, authentic literature, and high-interest texts to support students in becoming critical thinkers and skilled readers and writers.

A Comprehensive Approach to Literacy Instruction

Together the two parts of this comprehensive curriculum build proficient readers and writers who have the skills needed to achieve on standardized tests as well as to be leaders of their own learning and active contributors to a better world.

Zooming in on the Reading Foundation Skills Block

In the EL Education K–2 Reading Foundations Skills Block (Skills Block), students engage in a curriculum steeped in the science of reading that strengthens their “orthographic mapping” skills through multisensory techniques, such as movement and music. Orthographic mapping may sound obscure, but it’s at the heart of developing literacy. It’s the essential process of mapping phonemes (speech sounds) with graphemes (letters or letter groups), and bonding those to memory.

With all their senses engaged, students who have traditionally struggled with reading disabilities can still develop the pathways for mastering those essential skills. And all students are empowered to find joy in reading and develop habits of character through goal-setting and reflection. See it come to life in an EL Education classroom:

“We are biologically designed to learn through movement,” affirms Jenny Elahi, an EL Education Kindergarten teacher.

While students revel in the challenge, joy, and collaboration they experience throughout the Skills Block, we can peek under the hood to see the mechanics driving student success. The Skills Block provides explicit instruction on the building blocks of written language, including:

  • Guiding students to hear and manipulate units of oral language, or phonemic awareness, the foundation of all reading instruction.
  • Supporting students through structured and systematic phonics instruction as they develop associations of sounds with spelling patterns.
  • Proactively teaching and assessing automaticity, or fluency, for both reading and spelling.

Proficiency in these building blocks gives students the “mental bandwidth” to pay attention to the meaning of text, which is the ultimate goal of reading, and the fulfilling part for students. Hear it first hand from students who love Skills Block:

The “Science” behind the EL Education Approach

The Skills Block uses a structured literacy approach grounded in the Phase Theory of Dr. Linnea Ehri, one of the nation’s foremost experts on how the brain maps sounds and letters. The four phases describe behavior related to the types of letter-sound connections students are able to make as they learn to read and write.

A structured and systematic literacy approach, based on the phase theory of Dr. Linnea Ehri

A structured and systematic literacy approach, based on the phase theory of Dr. Linnea Ehri

Students are initially taught new spelling patterns using words in isolation to ensure that they are using the visual cueing system (not pictures, meaning, or syntax cues) to solve the word. They learn the new spelling pattern then apply this knowledge to read words that contain this pattern (and other taught patterns) in decodable readers.

Letter sounds and spelling patterns are taught in a logical sequence, aligned with the progression of the standards and the phases of reading and spelling development, and covering all of the most common patterns used in the English language. Solity and Vousden (2009) demonstrated that the combination of knowledge of the 64 most common letter-sound mappings of English, together with familiarity with its 100 or so most frequent words, allows children to read aloud 90% of words in texts they typically encounter—putting them very efficiently on the path to independent reading.

The Science of Content Knowledge

While students are mastering phonics in the Skills Block, they’re building deep expertise about highly motivating topics in the content-based modules of the EL Education curriculum.

These are inspired by the reading science that tells us that curriculum can yield four times the vocabulary growth when it engages students in a single topic of study over the course of many weeks.

That’s why the EL Education content-based literacy modules span 8-9 weeks and center an anchor text and related books on a single topic. The topics were suggested by students, teachers, and families because of their relevance and interest to students. Studies show that cultural responsiveness in topics, texts, and tasks accelerate and sustain learning too.

The modules also engage students in a read-think-talk-write cycle. Research shows that multilingual learners can better access content alongside their peers when they can participate in these multiple modes of literacy development.

A Formula for Impact

The EL Education curriculum, rooted in the science of reading, ensures that, by the end of grade 2, students acquire the depth of skills they need in the Reading Foundations standards to navigate grade-level text independently. EdReports ratings affirm: EL Education’s K-2 Language Arts curriculum meets expectations across all domains: text quality, knowledge-building, and usability.

EdReports ratings for EL Education K-2 curriculum

The ratings are more than a series of scores. They represent the real experiences of almost half a million students in EL Education schools and districts. The curriculum offers a way to level the playing field for them, providing equitable access to literacy instruction that supports all students on their journey to becoming proficient readers.

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    EL Education