*We’ve changed the headline on this blog from how it originally ran to clarify this point: there IS a place for teaching comprehension strategies, but those strategies should not be the tail wagging the dog of reading instruction. Our concern is that when we focus primarily on strategies, which have characterized a great deal of reading instruction in the past, we do so at the cost of building vocabulary and background knowledge for those who need it most, children growing up in poverty. We need to get the portions right.
It’s a big country, and with 10,000+ school districts it’s hard to keep up with all the innovative district-level educational initiatives. Bill Gate’s mention of Tennessee’s LIFT Education in a late October speech intrigued us, so we decided to check out the LIFT 12-district network. Turns out it’s an educational jewel deserving of the Gates shout-out and more.
One year ago, in a move common to districts, LIFT identified K-2 literacy as a priority area for collaboration. The network decided to focus on expanding and improving students’ exposure to rich, complex text. Again, not so uncommon, as school districts have increasingly articulated such goals in the wake of the Common Core. The difference here is that the LIFT network schools appear to be willing to abandon a long-held reliance on comprehension strategies in favor of building background knowledge, the core foundation of comprehension.
LIFT publishes periodic blogs and posted three over the course of the last year about the K-2 literacy initiative that are well worth a complete read. The following excerpts give a taste of LIFT’s smart attention to building vocabulary and background knowledge through high-quality instructional materials that deliver content in a coherent sequence:
Knowledge-Rich Texts Lay the Foundation for Early-Literacy Progress (January 2017). [T]he LIFT network is focused on improving read-alouds in K-2 classrooms. Read-alouds are dedicated times for teachers to read rich, complex texts out loud to students, allowing children in early grades to grapple with and discuss ideas and texts they are capable of understanding but cannot yet read independently… Trousdale, Putnam, and Sullivan counties are particularly focused on reading aloud texts that not only teach students new words but also share important facts about real-world topics, like colonial history and science…
The Importance of Strong Literacy Instructional Materials (April 2017). In districts across Tennessee, exciting things are happening in K-2 literacy:
- In Lauderdale County, special education students in kindergarten are flourishing in conversations about fine art, discussing how human progress can change a landscape over time.
- In Loudon County, second-graders are talking about the Trail of Tears in a unit about westward expansion, using vocabulary words like “encountered,” “insisted,” and “relocate.”
- And in Jackson-Madison County, first-grade students are identifying how different folktales from Japan, Europe, and America have similar messages across cultures.
[T]eachers in each district are piloting either Core Knowledge, Wit & Wisdom, or both, each of which provides teachers with high-quality units that build students’ knowledge of the world and deep understanding of vocabulary and enduring concepts…
Teacher Planning Cycles Increase Student Vocabulary and Knowledge (Sept. 2017). In order for students to be able to comprehend rich text in later grades, they need a foundation of vocabulary words and mental schema about the world. Tackling a seventh-grade biology text, for example, is a whole lot easier if a student has heard words like “photosynthesis” and “ecological” and discussed concepts like cell division in earlier grades. But for this knowledge to stick, it needs to be delivered in cohesive units, allowing students to take away enduring understandings about those topics. It’s great for a student to understand photosynthesis, but that student also needs to connect it to a larger body of knowledge around how living things use resources, create energy, and grow…
Expect to read more about LIFT as we and others amplify what we anticipate will be very promising results from their literacy initiative.