Dive into the new EdVoices episode. EdReports director of English Language Arts, Jamilah Hicks, shares her expertise on how caregivers can learn more about their school’s K–5 ELA curriculum and engage with educators to help their kids excel in literacy.

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Jess Barrow  00:08

Hi, I’m Jess Barrow and this is the EdVoices Podcast. Today, I’m joined with our Director of English Language Arts Jamilah Hicks, and we’re going to be talking about some tips for families and caregivers as the school year gets started around your child’s K-5 instructional materials, especially when it comes to building those early literacy skills. Jamilah, thank you so much for being on the show. Do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Jamilah Hicks  00:37

Sure, thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here. As Jess said, my name is Jamilah Hicks, I am the Director for the ELA team here at EdReports. As part of my background, I come to you as a former kindergarten teacher, a former elementary administrator, and a former elementary supervisor for ELA.

Jess Barrow  01:00

So lots and lots of experience. You know, I know right now, if folks are reading about reading in the news that a lot of it hasn’t been great. We know that two thirds of fourth graders are struggling to read, we know that only 25% of elementary ELA teachers are using aligned core materials even once a week. So I wondered if we could start, kind of zoom out a little bit and help families and caregivers understand, you know, what, what’s the role that high quality instructional materials play in supporting students to learn to read?

Jamilah Hicks  01:37

Yeah, I mean, it plays a huge role. When we think about studies on effect size, we know that students learn primarily through their interaction with teachers, and the content that they’re learning. And so those high quality instructional materials provide a foundation for student learning. And they also support teachers to develop students’ literacy skills, and the knowledge that they need to be successful in school and beyond.

Jess Barrow  02:02

Yeah, and would you mind talking a little bit about the role that instructional materials play, especially in providing sort of that cohesion for students and supports for teachers?

Jamilah Hicks  02:16

Yeah, it’s really, really, really important to have those high quality instruction materials. When we think about teacher planning and prep, those materials will provide a cohesive set of materials so that teachers are not wasting all of their time trying to piece together multiple programs that may not fit together. High quality instructional materials are going to be a one stop shop and offer supports for teachers so that they aren’t spending all of their time looking for other pieces or creating their own materials. Rather than that they can instead focus on ensuring that each and every one of their students is learning and growing. At the end of the day, high quality instructional materials just better equip teachers to be able to give students the knowledge and skills that they need.

Jess Barrow  03:05

Yeah, thanks for sharing a little bit about that. Because I’m a parent of a young child, she hasn’t quite gotten to the reading age yet and even working in this field, sometimes I think like, oh, gosh, you know, what, what would I even be looking for as a caregiver, if my, my child’s coming home with these materials? And I know, I know, this is a huge topic that can have lots of in-depth answers. But I wonder if we could, you know, kind of start thinking about what are some key look-fors or components of high quality materials that families and caregivers can consider when they’re thinking about their child’s curriculum?

Jamilah Hicks  03:47

Yeah, so any materials that tend to be newer in terms of their publication date, those tend to be more aligned when we think about standards, and reading science research, and, and anything relative to how students learn how to read. So those sets of materials that have newer copyrights are usually more aligned to the standards and to the research.

You also want to consider if your students are having access to a variety of challenging texts, and questions and tasks that include rich vocabulary. This can sometimes come in the form of wide reading, which basically means we want to see students are exposed to lots and lots of different texts in a variety of genres, and having as much time as possible to engage with those texts. Another really important critical part is knowledge building. We want to make sure that the text and the materials reflect a mix of genres, and that those texts are organized around a topic that supports students knowledge building, so things like weather or historical figures. Oftentimes you see connections to science and social studies content. When you think about knowledge building, you might also see some guiding questions at the start of a unit. And those guiding questions are pretty much the catalysts and driving force for students learning about that particular topic.

Another really big piece, when we think about some of the components that you want to see in high quality instructional materials, is diversity and cultural relevance. And I know that that’s a really big and hot topic in some areas right now. But when we think about the texts, which are really the heart of ELA materials, we really want to see those mirrors windows and sliding glass doors. We want to make sure that students can see themselves and others reflected in the materials, particularly the text they read, or text that they are listening to ask do the texts reflect multiple aspects of identity, right?

Because we have multiple aspects of our identity. It’s more than just race. Are those materials drawing upon students cultural and linguistic backgrounds and experiences as assets, we want to make sure that materials are taking an assets bet assets based approach to those components versus a deficit based approach? Are teachers being encouraged to draw upon students backgrounds, and incorporate those experiences into their learning? And then you also want to think about how different groups different demographics are depicted and represented in texts, or their school stereotypes present? Is there a balance of portrayals when we think about antagonists, and protagonists? Is one historically marginalized or underserved group, always represented as the antagonist? Are certain genders, being cast into certain stereotypes? Those are things that you that you want to be mindful of and consider when you’re thinking about high quality instructional materials.

Jess Barrow  07:00

That’s so great. So if we’re, I know, we’re going to talk about a couple more components. But if we really think about what we’re looking for in texts, just to kind of summarize what you were saying, we want to think about a mix of different variety of texts, different genres, nonfiction, fiction, lots of things within that. And that we want to make sure that those texts are really reflecting the diverse cultural backgrounds of the students in the classroom and you know, across the country. I wonder Jamilah, if you could share a little bit more about the importance of text variety. We’ve talked about how important it is to really have sort of those newer publication dates. What can parents look for in terms of sort of the questions and tasks that they’re seeing their students complete, as they’re learning to read?

Jamilah Hicks  07:54

You want to see variety in those as well. You want to see a mix of speaking and listening opportunities, as well as written opportunities, so that students can demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the text that they’re reading or listening to. When you think about questions and tasks and the sequence associated with them, you want to make sure that they are ordered in a way and such that they build complexity both within the unit or module that the student is currently studying, as well as across the year, you want to see earlier questions and tasks, prepare students to successfully complete future questions and tasks.

And then you also want to see kind of a larger culminating task that ties their learning together. And when we use the term culminating, we are referencing the fact that students are drawing upon multiple strands of standards. So there might be a speaking and listening component. There might be a reading component. There might be a writing component in that task. And all of that is coming together so that students can demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the topic that they’ve been studying.

Jess Barrow  09:00

Okay, well, these are such good concrete examples. I know something else that might be on families’ and caregivers’ minds in terms of what to look for are questions around foundational skills components. So these are components that really connect to how students are learning how to read, especially in these early years. You and I have talked about this, there’s a lot of like, different kinds of vocabulary and jargon when it comes to these components. So we really are trying to kind of keep this as caregiver friendly as possible, but know that we will have lots of links if there are things you want to do more reading on that it will be available with this conversation. But if you wouldn’t mind like thinking about what are some of the foundational skills components that parents can can kind of be on the lookout for in their their child’s materials?

Jamilah Hicks  09:59

Yeah. The main thing you want to be on the lookout for is the use of the decodable texts versus a leveled reader. So when we say decodable texts, we’re referencing texts or passages in which students should be able to read the majority of the words, because that text or passage is going to include high frequency words, which are some of the most commonly used words in our written language, as well as words that include the sound spelling patterns that they’ve learned, as well as sound spelling patterns that they have previously learned.

So they’re getting that review component in there as well, versus a leveled reader text, in which you often see the teacher encouraging students to use cues, such as looking at the picture and guessing unfamiliar words in a predictable sentence pattern. Those are things that you want to avoid. You want the text that students read to support the foundational skills that they are learning. The instruction and the practice should be reciprocal in nature. They need to go hand in hand.

Jess Barrow  11:06

Thanks for breaking that down. You know, it’s almost like you’re a parent yourself. I think those are great examples of things that caregivers can kind of do on their own just looking at their child’s materials. But I know there’s obviously a partnership of between families, and teachers and families want to be involved in what their child is learning. I wonder if we could give a little bit of advice for families and caregivers who want to learn more, and really ensure that their child has what they need to build literacy skills. What are some of the ways that they can partner with their teachers to do that?

Jamilah Hicks  11:50

Absolutely. Yeah. The first thing is something really easy and simple. It’s just asking questions, right? Use that as an entry point, it might be you asking questions about the weekly newsletter that you receive. So you can ask the teacher questions about the different texts that the children are reading or listening to. Ask about what topic they’re learning about, what are they studying about, oftentimes, particularly in high quality instructional materials, there is an additional reading list. And that’s a great resource for parents or caregivers to use, because you can select texts from from that list. And you can read those books at home with your with your baby. Or you can have them read those books to you if they’re at a level where they’re independent readers. And all of that is going to encourage the partnership that you have with your child’s teacher. And it’s a way for you to support their knowledge building. You can ask questions, if you’re if your student is on the lower end, or just at the beginning stages, or developmental stages of learning how to read. You can ask about how the text they are reading connect to those foundational skills that they’re learning. That’s really important, it goes back to that reciprocal relationship that I was just talking about.

So again, for our students who are learning how to read you want to see those decodable texts or passages that contain those high frequency words and words that students can decode. They’re going to be those words that students have either currently learned or previous previously learned sound spelling patterns, and it’s going to give them an opportunity to practice those skills that they learned.

Again, level readers are things that you want to be concerned about. If you are seeing a lot of texts that have predictable, or repeated sentence patterns that aren’t connected to the foundational skills that students are learning, that’s not going to give them the opportunities they need to practice the instruction that they’ve received. Then a student’s progress in their learning and they’re encountering more challenging words, they’re going to need some opportunities to practice word analysis strategies, or sometimes we call them word attack strategies, they need to know what to do when they come to an unfamiliar word, right. So you might want to see them use strategies such as breaking down the syllables within that word, we call that syllabication. You also might want to see them breaking apart the prefix and suffix and based elements within words, we call that morphemic analysis. It helps students when they know how, and understand the small parts of meaning in those words. It’s It’s another tool in their toolkit to help them decode unfamiliar words. So yeah, those are those are the main things that you want to look for and partner with the teacher on when it comes to supporting students learning in the in the home environment.

Jess Barrow  14:53

Those are those are such great examples. I really, really appreciate you sharing those with me and I feel as a parent just having this conversation, it really has helped me learn about these sorts of specific things to keep in mind without having to be a foundational skills expert, right? Is there anything else you’d want to add? Before we head out?

Jamilah Hicks  15:22

Another really important thing relative to the the diversity and cultural relevance piece that we talked about earlier, that parents can lean in on when they are partnering with their children’s teachers is asking questions about the supports that are in place. When we think about those linguistic supports for students who might be trying to learn another language, if English is not their native language, you want to see if their supports and the materials that help the teacher with understanding how to compare and contrast cognates and morphemes in different languages, and strategies that encourage students to think in multiple language and use their home language as an entry point to learn English.

Again, it’s that assets based approach, right? We don’t want to approach different languages, cultures, backgrounds, as a deficit, these are things that we need to leverage to encourage and promote students learning. And those are the things that you want to look for in materials, you want to question how the materials leverage student’s diversity, leverage their cultural and social backgrounds in their learning goals and tasks. Look for tasks within the materials do you see tasks that reflect customs of other cultures, when you think about an equity lens, and materials are equity and access across genders cultures, or countries of origin being promoted within the materials.

So those are some things that that parents can be on the lookout for, as they are kind of going through the the textbooks and other sets of materials that students bring home. That’s kind of like a little investigative work that they could do, just to learn more about what it is that their students are using to gain knowledge.

Jess Barrow  17:19

Well, I really love that you brought that up, because you know, we talked about it in terms of like, it’s important to see that in the text students are reading, but I think what parents might not know is how important it is to have those actual supports built into the materials. And that’s something that that is a great thing to partner with the teacher about because the teachers are using those materials every day. So they will especially when it comes as you mentioned around support for multilingual learners, the teachers should have that knowledge to be able to say, here’s how I’m going to be supporting your child to make sure they have access to the same learning as everyone else.

Jamilah Hicks  17:56

Absolutely. It’s one of the strengths of having high quality instruction materials. That is definitely not something you want teachers to have to guess at. They they need that guidance within the material so that they know how to best meet the needs of the individual students that they’re serving.

Jess Barrow  18:13

Yeah. Well, Jamilah, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us. And I just so enjoyed this conversation and can’t wait to have you back on Ed voices really soon.

Jamilah Hicks  18:25

Thank you. It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Jess Barrow  18:28

We’ll talk to you soon.