Teachers grapple with challenges of literacy instruction
In 2003, less than a quarter of fifth grade students in Philadelphia public schools scored proficient on the state’s mandatory literacy test. Given this reality, the District had a compelling case for implementing a new standardized curriculum for literacy instruction during the 2003-2004 school year.
Since then, teachers have responded with mixed opinions on the curriculum, the materials that accompany it, and the effect that the curriculum has had on their instruction.
District officials say they have heard teachers’ concerns, and that they are working to support school staff in the difficult work of teaching students to read and write.
The District’s new literacy curriculum describes how teachers should teach reading and writing in grades K-9. The curriculum requires teachers to use eight strategies – such as shared, guided and independent reading – to help students strengthen their reading and writing skills (see box).
Even before last year, though, many of the District’s elementary school teachers were already using these eight techniques. What is new for many teachers is a new textbook that teachers are required to use for whole-class instruction.
A second new feature is a pacing and scheduling timeline that tells them what topics and skills they should teach each week and what materials they should use in class.
Teachers and District officials are quick to point out that literacy instruction is a difficult and complicated endeavor, particularly in Philadelphia, where so many students are reading below grade level.
Linda Tenaglia, a veteran fifth grade teacher at Blankenburg Elementary School, described this challenge.
"I had a significant number of my class come to me at a third grade reading level and I had a couple at a second grade level. Most of the kids in my room moved two levels [in reading] because we worked hard all year. But the fact that they moved two levels means that they are still a year behind," Tenaglia said.
The challenge of teaching students who are below grade level is complicated by the fact that the new curriculum emphasizes teaching students at proficient levels. This means that teachers must find a balance between working with students at their current reading level and exposing them to texts and concepts that are at their grade level, even if they can’t read at that level.
Deborah Chagin, director of literacy development for the School District, acknowledged the need for this balance. "Before the new curriculum, [teachers] were spending too much time on students’ instructional level and not enough time on grade level content, so kids were perpetually behind."
An additional challenge in reading instruction is that teachers are supposed to work with students in small groups to improve their reading levels. This practice, known as guided reading, is difficult to facilitate because teachers must make sure that while they work with four to six students in a small group, the rest of the students are engaged in meaningful work.
In some schools in Philadelphia, this can mean that a teacher has to try to monitor 25 to 30 other students while working intensively with a small group.
Director for Curriculum and Instruction Cecilia Cannon acknowledged this classroom management challenge and said the District is trying to address teachers’ needs.
"Most of our professional development has been focused on what [teachers] do with the rest of the students," Cannon explained. "What’s meaningful and not filling time.. It’s not easy, particularly if teachers tend to teach to whole groups, but it will continue to be a focus for us."
Concerns about materials
Teachers have also expressed mixed feelings about the new materials.
One area of disagreement is the curriculum’s reliance on mandatory textbooks. These books – Harcourt Brace’s Trophies series for grades K-5 and Holt, Rinehart and Winston’s Elements of Literature series for grades 6-8 – are being used in all elementary and middle schools in an effort to ensure that students across the District receive standardized, high-quality instruction.
Some teachers have welcomed the new materials, suggesting that they are comprehensive and beautifully constructed. Teachers said they particularly like the overhead transparencies and graphics in the books.
However, other teachers said emphasis on the textbooks has limited their ability to incorporate themes and content from other subject areas into their literacy classes.
"One thing we were able to do in the past is to teach in themes," said Tracy Manela, a veteran first grade teacher at Blankenburg Elementary School.
Manela explained that students "would delve really deeply into a topic, like ocean life, and study the science and social studies aspects of it, and I could do it during the literacy time, because they were reading and writing..We don’t really have that opportunity now because we have to do certain parts of Harcourt at certain weeks."
Chagin, however, said that the textbooks help teachers teach at students’ grade level. She also pointed out that the teachers’ editions of the textbooks include Pennsylvania standards as well as questions that will prepare students to achieve proficiency on standardized tests.
According to Chagin, there is a misconception that teachers must to do every activity in the required textbooks. This year the pacing and scheduling timeline has been adjusted so that teachers have more freedom to make decisions about what materials to use, she said.
Teachers have also criticized the textbooks because they are anthologies – collections of excerpts from longer stories and books.
Betsy Wice, a recently retired District reading specialist, explained, "For students who are developing as readers, it’s much more helpful to read a whole book, to read an author all the way through, to get a sense of their style and characters. This makes it much easier to be a productive reader."
Another teacher, Christine MacArthur, who teaches ninth grade at Frankford High School, echoed this concern, saying that her students were disappointed that they were not reading novels.
"When you actually read a novel, you feel like you’ve accomplished something," MacArthur said. "Reading these short snippets of things, they don’t feel like they’re really learning anything."
The District "wants students to read all the wonderful novels and informational texts that are available," Chagin responded. "The excerpts in the Elements book are not meant to replace that. The excerpts are used to teach the skills and strategies that must be learned at grade level. Each excerpt was chosen because it provided an opportunity to teach something specific and is as long as needed to get the teaching done."
Writing is an issue
Several teachers and an administrator expressed concern to the Notebook that because of the demands of the pacing and scheduling timeline, students were spending less time writing than in previous years.
Director of Curriculum Support Mary Lou Fischer said that this year teachers will receive training focusing on improving students’ writing skills.
But some teachers are still struggling to reconcile their own beliefs about what constitutes high-quality literacy instruction and what the core curriculum requires.
Betsy Wice echoed the sentiments of several teachers who were dismayed with last year’s changes.
"The whole idea that kids read because they want to know about something and write because they want to talk about it – that changed," Wice said. "And that was really a loss."