Latest research recommends changes to ELA instruction

Dr. Natalie Saaris
July 30, 2018

The Fordham Institute, a non-profit education think tank, recently surveyed 1,200 ELA teachers across the country to better understand their implementation of the three key instructional shifts proposed by the Common Core and similar state standards:

  • “regular practice with complex texts and their academic language”
  • “reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts”
  • “building knowledge through content-rich curriculum”

They asked ELA teachers questions about how they determined the complexity of assigned texts, their approach to teaching vocabulary, whether they engaged in close reading and evidence-based writing, and how much attention they gave to building students’ background knowledge.

Based on their findings, the Fordham Institute made five recommendations to address critical shortcomings in ELA instruction. Here is the expert advice and how to implement it using Actively Learn.

1. Determine the instructional purposes for which a text is suited.

This is a response to the worrying trend that teachers are increasingly assigning texts based on students’ reading level rather than their grade level. This contradicts the recommendations of the Common Core standards, which encourage teachers to assign complex, grade-level texts. In response, the Fordham Institute recommends that teachers balance quantitative measures of text complexity (like Lexile and Flesch-Kincaid) with qualitative measures and their own judgment. Teachers should consider the complexity of text structure, the knowledge demands of the text, and whether the reading is appropriate for a particular group of students. It is not enough to match a student with a reading level; teachers should also be assigning texts based on their learning value.

How Actively Learn helps to implement this change:

  • Teachers can assign texts based on reading level, essential questions, key vocabulary, and instructional rigor. There is no single metric that determines the texts available to teachers and their students.
  • Scaffolding notes and accessibility features enable students across reading levels to access the same rigorous texts.
  • “Extra help” in notes and questions enables teachers to differentiate instruction so that all students can make sense of texts that are appropriate to the instructional goals of the class.

2. Make a conscious effort to spotlight new “Tier 2” words as students encounter them.

Teachers should increase students’ exposure to high-leverage words that appear across many academic texts (Tier 2); this will ultimately pay greater dividends than teaching words that students already know (Tier 1) or those that are specific to a narrow topic (Tier 3). Although it is sometimes necessary for teachers to define domain-specific “Tier 3” words, particularly if they are essential to understanding the text, “Tier 2” words ultimately have a greater impact on students because they appear more frequently across academic texts.

How Actively Learn helps to implement this change:

  • Teachers can select to view key vocabulary in our most popular texts to see the “Tier 2” words that appear in context. This generates a list of high-leverage words to use in vocabulary instruction.
  • Teachers can see what words students are looking up using their embedded dictionary. This gives teachers a sense of which words students are unfamiliar with so that they can target those words during instruction.

3. Use questions as “bread crumbs” that lead students toward deeper understanding of texts.

Students should know how to grapple with complex texts, and teachers too often address gaps in content knowledge by giving away the meaning rather than teaching students to fish for it themselves. One way to help struggling readers understand challenging texts is to ask them questions that promote comprehension. These questions would help them first establish meaning by illuminating important elements in the text, then help them achieve greater depth of understanding by focusing their attention on a particular aspect of the text and asking them to engage in higher-order thinking.

How Actively Learn helps to implement this change:

  • Actively Learn assignments begin with an essential question that focuses student attention on a particular aspect of the text.
  • Multiple-choice questions embedded throughout the text highlight main ideas and help establish understanding.
  • Short-answer questions encourage analysis and extended thinking, linking back to the essential question and helping to synthesize information in the text.

4. Use more text-based writing prompts to strengthen students’ capacity for analysis.

Despite the Common Core push for evidence-based writing, most teachers admit to assigning writing prompts that draw on students’ own knowledge and experience rather than those that require students to develop claims and support them with textual evidence. This is concerning given that most college-level coursework and professional writing relies on expository writing, which students need to practice if they are to adequately prepare for their future. Although narrative and creative writing is engaging and has its place in ELA classes, text-based writing will ultimately pay the greatest dividends for students’ futures. It also has the added benefit of encouraging students to review their reading and coursework in an effort to analyze and synthesize ideas and provide evidence for their claims.

How Actively Learn helps to implement this change:

  • Our short-answer questions require students to support their responses with evidence from the text.
  • In-line annotations give students an opportunity to articulate their thinking as they read and make it visible to the teacher.
  • Teachers are able to give students regular rounds of feedback on their formative writing to prepare students for longer assignments.
  • Our Google doc add-on helps students incorporate their annotations and answers to questions while they write their longer essays.

5. Organize your lessons around “text sets.”

Sequenced text sets enable students to build content knowledge so that they can access increasingly complex texts. For example, a text set on Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact might start with an introductory textbook article that gives an overview of this topic, then progress to a reading of the Mayflower Compact itself, and end with a first-hand account of the Pilgrims’ experience. By the time students encounter the last and most challenging text, they have the appropriate framework in place to make sense of it. Text sets are a great way for teachers to scaffold student reading without doing the thinking for their students.

How Actively Learn helps to implement this change:

  • Our collection of Knowledge Sets provides teachers with sequenced text sets for both fiction and nonfiction texts.
  • The Actively Learn catalog provides core and supplemental texts tied to topics and themes to help teachers build their own sequenced text sets.

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