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Direct instruction and balanced literacy key to mastering Common Core

The previous issue of Remarkable Times outlined the district goal of ensuring that entering kindergarten students are reading on grade level by the end of third grade in 2018. This priority works in concert with another: having all schools follow the district’s comprehensive balanced literacy plan. The district’s comprehensive plan consists of two major components: a balance of whole group instruction and small group differentiated instruction.

In Peoria Public Schools, teachers implement the whole group core instruction through the balanced literacy framework. Balanced literacy is a comprehensive framework of language arts acquisition containing all of the components necessary for students to master written and oral communication. Areas of emphasis include: reading, writing, speaking, listening and viewing. Balanced literacy begins with creating a genuine appreciation for good literature and informational text. Balanced literacy also focuses on teaching foundational skills such as phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. In this framework, teachers also focus on grammar and language skills as well as different modes of writing. For example, in classrooms one will find students working with the teacher, working in pairs or small groups, working in literacy workstations and conferencing with the teacher. All instruction during this time is guided by the district’s grade level pacing guides which align to the expectations in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy.

The second important component of the district’s balanced literacy framework is a focus on small group differentiated instruction which is driven by each individual student’s assessment data. This small group work can occur during a teacher’s class time, but at least one period is built into each school day for direct instruction as well. Direct instruction is an explicit, intensive instructional teaching method that allows students of all abilities to become confident, capable learners.

Direct instruction allows teachers in grades kindergarten through second grade the opportunity to teach students, according to their level, the appropriate phonemic awareness and phonics skills as well as reading comprehension. In K-2, the direct instruction program that is used is Reading Mastery. Direct instruction helps students meet the rigorous Common Core State Standards in vocabulary, writing, and comprehension through explicit instruction, modeling, guided practice, and independent practice.

In grades 3-8, for students not yet reading on grade level or who need extra support in mastering some foundational skills, the direct instruction program that is used is called Corrective Reading. In high school, students who need remediation or extra support in developing literacy skills are scheduled for the course, Strategic Reading, which uses two direct instruction programs: Read to Achieve and Corrective Reading. These direct instruction reading intervention programs deliver tightly sequenced, carefully planned lessons that give struggling students the structure and practice necessary to become skilled, fluent readers and better learners. Students enrolled in the district’s pre-kindergarten program participate in the direct instruction program Language for Learning.

Each district teacher or tutor leading a direct instruction group must receive six hours of direct instruction training. To this end, beginning this week and continuing through January 2015, James Rainer, a national direct instruction trainer, will be training Peoria Public Schools' teachers and tutors on the direct instruction model.
According to Shameika Sykes-Salvador, Peoria Public Schools Social Studies/Literacy Coordinator, one strength of Rainer’s training sessions is that it shows teachers that direct instruction does need not be tedious in spite of its highly structured and scripted nature. “He makes direct instruction fun,” she says. Rainer's animated and energetic workshops show teachers step-by-step methods of introducing reading concepts to students and how to make the program their own. "You want students to make a connection. You want them to interpret the story--what does it mean to them?" he told Roosevelt Magnet School faculty this week during their workshop.  
     James Rainer Roosevelt    Balanced Lit training

During the workshop, Rainer walked teachers through the Teachers' Manual, in which each line of text is numbered so that students can read along and answer questions about the progression of a story. As the group read each sentence in the story, he coached teachers to instruct students, "Eyes up, eyes down," so they would know whether they were to be reading the text or listening to the teacher. This is one of many techniques that Rainer gives to teachers on implementing the program with fidelity and a little fun.

According to Sykes-Salvador, “the district’s literacy plan gives both teachers and students the “best of both worlds.” Students and teachers engage in a daily period of direct instruction where the program is highly scripted and sequenced. Then there are other opportunities during the literacy block for teachers to use their creativity and knowledge of the Common Core State Standards to create their own engaging and focused lessons according to the needs of the classroom.”

The district’s comprehensive approach to balanced literacy creates continuity for students who travel from grade to grade within a school as well as from school to school. By creating common practices among schools, students will have a better chance to ease into a new school setting. This is particularly important for districts like Peoria which experience high mobility rates among students. Using a comprehensive approach across all schools allows a student to transfer from one school to another within the district and receive nearly seamless instruction. Giving teachers the ability to avoid instructional downtime can be invaluable.

“Balanced literacy is a shared vision in each building”, says Sykes-Salvador, “because the Common Core Standards require students to be reading, writing, listening and speaking in all classes, not just the English Language Arts classroom”.

Such an approach to instruction for Common Core is being advocated nationwide. In a recent New York Times column, Mark Federman, a school principal and workshop trainer in balanced literacy and Common Core writes, “In the professional development workshops I’ve led nationally around the Common Core, I've found that schools with many struggling readers who are not practicing balanced literacy are having the hardest time transitioning to the Common Core because they lack the foundation in literacy across the curriculum that students need.”