Despite long hours of preparation, planning, and lesson delivery by hard-working teachers, today’s literacy instruction regularly falls short—reading outcomes are stagnant and striking achievement gaps persist.
So what’s the problem? At its core, the average literacy block lacks sufficient opportunities for students to build knowledge about the world—it lacks a focus on teaching rich content. We know that underdeveloped knowledge about the world is at the root of underperformance for many of today’s readers. Without lots of world knowledge (e.g., space, cultures and communities, plant life—to scratch the surface), and without the familiarity and flexibility to read and use the words that represent that knowledge (growth, innovation, environment), many children can’t succeed academically.
Yet the field has focused largely on using basic material and teaching basic literacy skills during the literacy block. In many classrooms across the country, reading instruction revolves almost exclusively around basic text, developing children who are fast (word) readers, and focusing on helping them understand what they can expect from different types of books (fiction, non-fiction, different structures, etc.). A lot of the time, small groups of children read the same book because it is at their level for reading words, not because of the content or complexity, and then the group goes through reading strategies with a teacher’s guidance; or, the class works on letter-sound correspondence, spelling patterns and reading high-frequency words. Sometimes there are vocabulary lists of words, too, and maybe extended genre studies (e.g., biographies or fairy tales). This fragmented approach doesn’t help children accumulate the kind of knowledge that will support academic success.
That’s why the literacy block should be defined by a content-based curriculum, one that gives students repeated opportunities to read, talk and write about a big idea or concept over an extended period of time – enough time to internalize understanding and lay the foundation for more learning at higher levels and grades.
What’s a content-based curriculum? It is designed around an overarching theme and content-based units of study. A signature feature is a set of books for each unit, to support children to study different perspectives on the same topics through high–quality texts. The book set includes fiction and non-fiction — books for read-alouds and discussion that are well beyond children’s word reading level — and is often complemented by other materials to support deeper knowledge-building, including videos. Then, and only then, does the model start to look and feel a little more like the more traditional one, including: books for instructional-level guided reading (high-frequency words, comprehension strategies); a phonics and spelling component; and decodable books. But the guided reading and the phonics are just a part of this content-based literacy block, and they are adding to knowledge building because they use thematically related materials.
In the end, we can’t let the instructional minutes spent on literacy not include knowledge-building opportunities. Knowledge is at the root of the problem and the solution for many readers, and a much more content-rich curriculum is the instructional answer.