Ensuring the success of future teachers to enact foundational skills literacy instruction
Categories: Literacy, Teaching Practice
At West Sabine Elementary School in East Texas, a class of second-grade students engages with rapt attention and curiosity as they read a new book about Brooklyn, New York, with their teacher. Together, they learn spelling patterns for the different pronunciations of “y,” sounding new words out using syllabication rules they had previously learned for decoding. The teacher then projects onto the whiteboard a map of Brooklyn to discuss its geographic context, regularly checking for understanding as she supports students in building knowledge to understand both the text and meaning of the words they are learning to pronounce.
This teacher’s instruction is an example of strong, research-based practice in early literacy. Students are learning both to decode and comprehend text. Both word recognition and language comprehension are essential building blocks for early learners. At DFI, we’ve worked extensively with ed-prep programs to support future teachers’ use of knowledge-rich curriculum to foster comprehension with all students. But foundational skills that support word recognition, in particular, is an area of literacy where teacher-educators cite future teachers needing more support so that they are well-equipped to equitably reach and engage every learner.
At West Sabine, teachers told us they learned foundational skills instruction on the job. While much policy attention has focused on supporting in-service teachers, it’s a critical time to ensure that educator-preparation programs are also receiving funding, tools, and support to prepare aspiring teachers before they’re leading their own classrooms with real students.
“Novice teachers are navigating a lot in their first three years,” says Ronda McClain, assistant professor at Stephen F. Austin State University (SFASU). “We want to put forward candidates who have confidence that they have a solid understanding of foundational skills instruction, so that they can keep their heads above water with the instruction piece, while juggling the thousand other things that come with being a first-year teacher.”
McClain is a faculty participant in our Early Literacy Network, an initiative funded by the TLL Temple Foundation in East Texas. With our support, faculty teams from SFASU, Sam Houston State University, and Texas A&M University-Texarkana are redesigning early literacy methods courses to include a focus on systematic, cumulative foundational skills instruction. This coursework redesign includes adoption of seven practice-based modules on foundational skills instruction, through which candidates at each program build their own content knowledge for teaching, analyze instructional videos, and internalize and record themselves teaching foundational skills lessons from high-quality instructional materials.
To ensure candidates leave their courses well-prepared, after candidates complete each module, faculty work with DFI staff to analyze module data, dig into candidate work samples, and plan for reteaching. To increase alignment between early literacy work happening in nearby K-12 schools and the ed-prep programs, we wanted faculty to see examples of strong early literacy instruction in action and hear from teachers in their local context. Our visit to West Sabine Elementary School was facilitated through a partnership with Instruction Partners, who had been working with the school, among others, to transition them from a balanced literacy curriculum to an evidence-based, structured literacy curriculum through in-service professional learning and school leadership support. Faculty observed several K-2 classrooms, then participated in focus groups with teachers, instructional leaders, and the district superintendent.
The experience “reinforced critical urgency and responsibility we have as teacher-educators to continue to be lifelong learners ourselves,” Lauren Burrow, professor at SFASU, reflects. And in preparing aspiring teachers, “we want to empower them to look at the curriculum in their future schools with a critical eye and say, ‘Is this the right way of supporting all of my students to be successful? Is this curriculum rooted in research and evidence?’ And to feel capable enough to advocate for best practice if the answer to those questions is no.”
To successfully engage every student in rigorous, affirming early literacy learning experiences, teachers must have deep content knowledge and strong instructional skills. To ensure their success, we must adequately prepare all pre-service teachers to implement research-based foundational reading instruction and provide ongoing, effective professional learning to in-service teachers to continually improve their practice.
That’s why DFI and Instruction Partners are proud to work side-by-side to create the conditions for this body of support in East Texas. We’re partnering with ed-prep programs, school leaders, and current and future teachers to exemplify efforts for strong early literacy foundational skills instruction – so that every child can become a confident and proficient reader.
Instruction Partners team members Vanessa Owens and Maggie Wertz contributed to this piece.