Curriculum Case Study: We’ve Been Teaching Reading Wrong for Decades. How a Massachusetts School’s Switch to Evidence-Based Instruction Changed Everything

Kindergarten anchor charts from the EL Education K-8 Language Arts unit on “Weather Wonders.” (UP Academy Holland)

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This is the second in a series of four essays that reflect on a Knowledge Matters Campaign tour of school districts across Massachusetts. Part of a larger set of stories detailing the journey of educators across the country that have embraced a new vision of teaching and learning through implementation of high-quality instructional materials, this piece highlights UP Academy Holland, which shifted from balanced literacy to a high-quality, knowledge-building English language arts curriculum built to support the science of reading. Part of the Boston Public Schools, UAH is located in the Bowdoin-Geneva community. Follow the rest of our series and previous curriculum case studies here.

“Teaching reading is rocket science,” Louisa Moats is well known for saying. It is something we frequently referenced during our guided reading professional development for teachers. Sadly, until we started on our Science of Reading journey two-plus years ago, we had no idea how bereft our instruction was of the benefits of that science.  

Our collective awakening started as a result of listening to Emily Hanford’s podcast, “At a Loss for Words,” in which Hanford reveals that reading instruction in America has led children to read poorly based on a flawed theory of the mechanics of reading. While the three of us had different emotional reactions to hearing it, our powerful common experience was, “We have to do something!” 

The “do something” started with a lot of reading from Google searches, Facebook groups, and blog posts. Then came reflections on our own practices as teachers — practices we’d learned in our teacher prep programs and in professional development sessions in the years that followed — much of which has now been disproven (if, indeed, it was ever actually founded in evidence). As administrators, we came to recognize that we’d passed many of these ill-founded notions on to teachers at our school — and that has produced no small amount of guilt. How could we have taught students to read this way for so many years?! 

In a recent series of focus group meetings as part of a visit by the Knowledge Matters School Tour to UP Academy Holland, we had an opportunity to reflect on our past practices and how we got to where we are. While we had implemented a strong , on-grade-level phonics curriculum for all students in grades K-3 a few years back, in small groups, teachers were still using texts at students’ “just right” (which is to say, below grade level in many cases) reading level and basing their instruction on disproven strategies like “three-cueing” which asks them to use picture or context clues and guess at words based on syntax. We may have put on a “phonics patch,” but our small group instruction wasn’t complementing it; in fact it was likely competing with it. In addition, our whole group Reading Workshop curriculum featured units that were focused around decontextualized discrete comprehension skills, rather than knowledge building sets of texts. In talking to our visitors as part of the School Tour, teachers called what we were doing “a hodgepodge”, “segmented”, “disconnected”, “lacking cohesion.”  

“Students could be in [one level] for comprehension and another level for fluency”, one teacher said.  Another piped in, “Yeah, How do you group a student whose fluency and word-solving skills are excellent but she has no idea what the book is about?”

Even more importantly, students were bored and really didn’t enjoy their literacy instruction. They weren’t engaged, and we saw the most challenging behaviors of the day during our core ELA blocks. This is what you would have seen at our school three years ago. You also would have heard teachers describing our curriculum as “frustrating” and “hurting their soul” for both themselves and their students.  

So much is different now that we have fully implemented a structured literacy approach with the EL Education Language Arts curriculum. What you see now in our building is students engaged in knowledge-building modules, learning about topics like fossils and schools around the world. The 43 percent of our students who are English Learners get to engage in oral language strategies that are beneficial to their language development and participate in discussions about sets of texts that build knowledge and vocabulary right along with their non-EL peers. 

In our small groups, you’ll see teachers targeting phonemic awareness skills and working on decodable texts that give students the opportunity to apply the phonics patterns they are learning. When we teach high-frequency words, we make explicit connections between the phonemes and the graphemes, and all of our literacy teachers are engaged in Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling training. Happily, we’ve seen a significant decrease in behavioral issues during the ELA block. 

The list of early changes our teachers reported seeing in their students was long: 

  • “I notice that their ability to respond orally to questions is more natural,” one second grade teacher said. 
  • “We used to ask a pretty easy question and it was crickets. Now it’s more natural because we ask 40 questions in a lesson and they think about the text and have something to say about it.” one of our special educators shared. “Students take time to decode words instead of guessing or using pictures.”
  • “Student writing looks better than it has ever looked,” said a third grade teacher.  
  • “The kids know more about what they’re writing about. They’re more confident.  They’re using expert vocabulary words.”  

Teachers are responding enthusiastically as well. Not only do they enjoy teaching more because students are more excited, they aren’t feeling as overwhelmed.  One teacher told us, “[Before] we didn’t trust in the power of what was going to happen.” We now hear teachers saying, “This curriculum is much more specific.”  “The clarity is powerful.”  “Kids actually enjoy learning about these topics.” 

We see increased engagement, joy, and growth from our students. And this has led to yet another realization that — at its core — our shift was one towards a more equitable education for our scholars. 

It was only after we started to implement evidence-based literacy instruction that we could really see the stark differences between balanced literacy practices and those that were more evidence-based. For us, this journey and shift has been personal — personal for ourselves as educators to do right by our students, personal in that we had been taught a way of teaching that was wrong and yet believed it for so many years, and personal for the students who we saw struggle every single day with the way things were taught. That first year, we must have said, “when you know better, you do better” hundreds of times — because it was true. And now that we’re on the other side of things, we can say that we’re doing better. 

Victoria Thompson is principal of UP Academy Holland in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Elizabeth Wolfson is UP Academy Holland’s reading specialist/instructional coach. Mandy Hollister is UP Academy Holland’s ESL teacher/ coordinator/ instructional coach.

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