I’ll never forget the day I found out there are six syllable types in written English. For an elementary-age student, that’s the kind of literacy learning that unlocks huge breakthroughs in both decoding and spelling.
Here’s the problem: I wasn’t in elementary school—I’d already served over a decade as an elementary teacher, principal, and district specialist. And, because I’d never learned about the six syllable types in school or teacher prep—nor had access to high-quality materials in my classroom—I’m sad to say I never taught them to my students either.
But when we know better, we do better. At EdReports, we believe all teachers deserve high-quality, grade-level, comprehensive early literacy materials so they can help every single student succeed. However, the difference between that vision and today’s reality is stark. As of 2022, two-thirds of 4th graders were struggling to read and only 25% of elementary English language arts (ELA) teachers reported using high-quality materials once a week.
Teachers are working tirelessly to help students get back on track after the impacts of the pandemic and chronic inequities. We must give educators access to high-quality early literacy materials so they can focus on doing what they do best: getting kids excited to learn and addressing the needs of individual students.
In support of that effort, I want to shed light on two topics that come up regularly in EdReports’ conversations with educators: The types of elementary ELA materials that EdReports reviews, and key implementation factors to consider before adopting an early literacy curriculum.
The elementary ELA curriculum formats that EdReports reviews, and why
EdReports looks for multiple dimensions of quality in K–5 ELA materials including supports for diverse learners (e.g., multilingual learners) and alignment to college and career ready standards across the following components:
- Foundational skills
- Language and vocabulary
- Reading comprehension (of literary and informational texts)
- Speaking and listening
We also consider market share and usage data to prioritize the highest needs of the field. As a result, we review three distinct K–5 ELA program formats:
- Core: Comprehensive—instructional materials that claim to deliver all ELA standards (that is, all the components listed above).
- Core: No Foundational Skills—instructional materials that claim to deliver all ELA standards except foundational skills; designed to be paired with a Foundational Skills Supplement.
- Foundational Skills Supplement—instructional materials that claim to deliver exclusively foundational skills standards, covering print concepts, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency; designed to be paired with a Core: No Foundational Skills program.
Before looking into any potential new K–5 ELA curriculum, make sure you know which of the above formats you already use and whether you’ll be adding to or replacing some or all of them.
Using EdReports reviews as part of a thorough adoption process
EdReports K–5 ELA reviews provide a wealth of information to help you evaluate and compare different materials. But they’re just one part of the selection process—a guide to inform your wider investigation.
Because each district and community has its own context and needs, conducting a thorough adoption process is critical. That includes establishing a clear instructional vision, identifying local priorities, recruiting a representative adoption committee, and developing a comprehensive implementation plan.
5 key implementation factors to consider before you adopt
Given the complexities of different early literacy curriculum formats and scopes, it’s essential for adoption committees to anticipate implementation challenges before selecting new materials. In-depth, upfront analysis of a program’s opportunities and gaps reduces your risk of running into unexpected problems after you’ve already committed to a curriculum.
Here are five key implementation questions to ask before adopting:
- To what extent will the program help you deliver on your instructional vision? You’ve outlined what teaching and learning should look like based on your local context and priorities. But, because no single program will perfectly address all your requirements, what additional resources or processes will you need to fill the gaps? For example, if a program’s texts aren’t fully relevant to or representative of your students and community, how will you adapt or replace them while maintaining appropriate grade-level text complexity?
- What professional learning will teachers need in order to use the program successfully? To what extent will educators need to adapt the program to meet local needs? Does its pedagogical approach differ from your current materials or from teachers’ existing knowledge and training? If you’re pairing a Core program with a Foundational Skills Supplement, how should educators use them in conjunction?
- How does the program relate to your current district context? If you haven’t previously used an ELA curriculum then adopting a Core: Comprehensive program is most likely your best option. If it’s high-quality, it will cover all ELA components coherently across all of K–5 so you won’t need to worry about combining different programs. Alternatively, if you have an existing curriculum that some teachers still value but that no longer meets your quality requirements, how will you engage educators to help foster their buy-in and use of a new program so it doesn’t sit unopened in a box?
- How user-friendly is the program and what does that mean for capacity? How streamlined or dense is the teacher’s guide? Does the program include the right amount of content for each grade level or multiple instructional pathways with a lot of optional extras (sometimes called a “big box program” or “basal”)? For the latter, who will develop your local scope and sequence, and how will you ensure educators know which program elements meet student needs and which don’t?
- If you’re pairing a Foundational Skills Supplement with a Core curriculum, are the two programs complementary? Do their instructional approaches and research bases match? Are the scope and sequences compatible? Do you have enough instructional hours available to match the expected pacing of both programs?
This level of investigation is a significant commitment, and rightly so: the stakes could not be higher. Selecting a K–5 ELA curriculum is a huge, long-term investment for districts that helps determine whether thousands of students across multiple cohorts will leave their elementary experience with the literacy skills to be successful in school and beyond. Let’s give educators access to the resources and support they deserve so they can help all students grow toward becoming proficient, confident, lifelong readers and writers.