*For more insights about strong classroom instruction, head over to the Edthena blog.

Watch this #PLtogether Lounge Talk with education journalist Natalie Wexler to learn about what elements to look for when observing literacy instruction.

You can find the transcript below:

– Welcome to another #PLtogether Lounge Talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena, where we make tools for video-powered professional learning. Today, we’re talking with Natalie Wexler. She is an education journalist who’s had her work featured in “The New York Times,” “The Washington Post,” “Forbes.” She’s also the author of a book called “The Knowledge Gap, The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System and How to Fix It.” She’s been covering literacy and equity for quite some time, and she’s here with us today. Natalie, thanks so much for joining us.

– My pleasure.

– So I want to take us into the classroom and really talk about how do we look at teaching that is focused on literacy instruction in the ways that you think they should be focused on. You know, this is a, a big space. It’s hard to know exactly what to look for, but people are asking, you know, “What is an effective literacy practice, and how do I see it when I go into a classroom?” So take us into that question. You know, I’ll ask some follow-ups. But start us there, you know, ’cause that’s a big, big question.

– Yeah, I mean, I would say, if a district or a school already has a knowledge-building, content-rich curriculum in place, an elementary literacy curriculum that goes deeply into content, one thing I would look for is fidelity to, you know, not slavishness, but fidelity to the basic principles at least of that curriculum. If you don’t have that kind of curriculum in place, you know, you’d want to look for the same kinds of things. And teachers would, you know, be needing to supply these things in themselves in the absence of a curriculum. But one thing to look for would be read-alouds to the entire class, especially at the lower grade levels. But read-alouds of complex text, really, through the elementary level, grade levels, and into middle school. Because it’s been found that students can, their listening comprehension exceeds their own reading comprehension on average through about age 13. So kids can take in more sophisticated information vocabulary through listening than through their own reading, especially before they’re fluent decoders. So teachers should be reading aloud for more than just the 10 minutes that’s usually allocated to that, maybe half an hour. And they should be reading from complex, content-rich text. And they should be reading a series of texts grouped around a particular topic, so they stay on a topic, let’s say sea mammals, for at least two or three weeks. Because kids will need to hear the same vocabulary and the same concepts repeatedly for that information to really stick with them in long-term memory. And that should be done for the whole class. No matter what an individual student’s decoding ability is, they should be getting access to that complex text and read-alouds. And then there’s discussion, and that depends a lot on what kinds of questions the teacher asks. Rather than putting a skill in the foreground, as is the usual practice, what you should be looking for is a question that puts the content in the foreground and brings in, you might call it a skill, but you know, a strategy or a skill that is helping kids think about that particular content. So not just, “Okay, this week we’re comparing and contrasting,” but does this text call for a question that requires students to compare? Like, “Last week we learned about sharks. This week we’re learning about whales. Gee, how are they similar and how are they different?” You know, that kind of question. And then, I would also take a look at classroom libraries. Typically, they are organized just by reading level. I would say they should also be organized by topics. So there should be maybe a basket of books on a particular topic, especially if it’s a topic that the class has just been learning about. If you’ve been reading aloud and talking about sea mammals, have a basket of books on the shelf about sea mammals at different levels of difficulty. Because once kids have knowledge of a topic, they are likely to be able to read about that topic at a higher level. And the topics should be fairly specific, so not just a basket of books labeled “plants” or “animals.” Because if you know about sea mammals, you may not have the background knowledge to read about ponies. And then fourth, I would be looking for spending a fair amount of time on social studies and science topics, in addition to fiction, poetry. But science and social studies topics have the most potential to build the kind of knowledge and vocabulary that fuels reading comprehension, especially comprehension of complex text. And it could be informational text, but it could be stories. It could be a biography of a scientist, or a historical fiction, or an actual real story drawn from history. Kids can get very interested in those. And then lastly, I would say look for writing that’s being done in the classroom in a manageable way that is connected to the content that kids are learning about. Typically, we have separate writing curriculum with its own topics or kids are writing about personal experience. But that’s, first of all, kids aren’t gonna have that much to say about a topic they don’t know much about. If you are asking them to write about a topic that they’ve just learned about, they’re often very excited to write about it. And also writing about a topic is a great way to deepen and reinforce knowledge of that topic. We know that from many studies. So not having kids write about what they’re learning is a tremendous wasted opportunity to really deepen and cement that knowledge.

– I love that nudge to push the writing portions of the learning experience for students closer to the reading and literacy pieces that you were just talking about. Which, of course, for those that have just found this video, “The Knowledge Gap” talking about how you need to really build in that foundational knowledge for students, and like you said, science, social studies, et cetera. For the school leader, or the district leader, or even the coach who hears that, hears you kind of giving us some guidance and places to look, quite literally, in the classroom, but they say, “Okay, but where’s my science of reading checklist? Like, I need a, I need my science of reading checklist.” Like, is there, is there such a thing? Is there a science of reading framework? Or should we be looking for something else that describes what good literacy instruction looks like in a research-informed perspective?

– Well, I mean, the science of reading, first of all, is often used to refer just to the science that relates to the decoding side of reading. There’s actually, there’s a lot of scientific evidence that relates to a comprehension side of reading. But I don’t know. I mean, a checklist might be a little too simplistic. I think the things I’ve mentioned are the kinds of things you want to look for. But it’s not like there’s a, you know, a universal scope and sequence for teaching these, for building knowledge. It’s, you know, there are different ways to do it. There’s no like one list of topics that everybody needs to cover. And there are different ways to build knowledge. You know, there are now five or six curricula out there that do build knowledge, or elementary literacy curricula. And they all cover different bodies of knowledge, and they do it in different ways. So, and you know, there are choices, and they’re all, they’re pretty good. None of them may be perfect, but they all do a pretty good job. So I wouldn’t put out a checklist like that. I would say, if you have a curriculum that that should be your guide, that teachers, you know. It’s not an easy matter to put together a curriculum. I think teachers are used to sort of tinkering with them and adding and subtracting. But a lot of thought and care has gone into constructing a good curriculum. And so I’ve been told by teachers and administrators who have initially adopted one that the first thing you need to do is kind of trust the process. Once you understand how that curriculum is put together and why, then maybe second year, third year that you’re using it, you could say, “Well this little, this piece didn’t work that well for my students last year, so maybe I’ll try something a little different. But I’ll still get at the same objectives that this read-aloud was trying to get at. But I’ll make it more interactive or more hands-on.” So there is room for teacher autonomy, creativity, but I’d say you gotta make sure that you are doing what the curriculum is intending teachers and students to do.

– Well, Natalie, we need to take a short break. So if you have found this video and you’re looking for the rest of our conversation, please head to http://pltogether.org for this conversation as well as many more. Natalie, thanks so much for being part of #PLtogether.

– Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.