Twice this week—from a NY teacher and an Illinois school administrator—I’ve been asked how to organize instructional time for literacy with Common Core. One was an email inquiry, the other face-to-face, but both noted my earlier concerns about Daily 5 and CAFE.
In both cases, they were right that I am not a big fan of those approaches.
My reason in both cases (and also with any similar, but less popular schemes): they distract teachers from an intense focus on what they are trying to teach students. Teachers have to be focused on learning—not activities.
Of course, many teachers would point out, the idea is for kids to learn, but teachers do that through their activities. I don’t disagree about the need for instructional activities as the means for increasing student knowledge and skills, but that doesn’t mean we should idolize the activities.
There are many activities that can be used to accomplish particular learning or teaching goals and teachers need to select among these and to move among these as they help students to gain the outcome. Locking into a particular activity on a daily basis is foolish.
Research has shown that teachers struggle to keep focused on kids’ learning; that they get so wrapped up in the activities that they often lose sight of their purpose. What do they say about alligators and swamp draining?
That’s why so many teachers and principals come to measure success in terms of how smoothly the activity went rather than on what it enabled kids to do.
Any scheme that focuses teachers on activities rather than outcomes is a non-starter for me.
However, I do appreciate that teachers embrace such schemes because of their manageability. The biggest decisions teachers have to make have to do with how to parcel out their valuable instructional time, and any plan that helps teachers to do this has some value.
The framework that I have long used is both similar to—and wildly different from—these schemes that I’m criticizing. My framework also gives teachers guidance with time use, but its emphasis is on the outcomes rather than the methods.
I start from the premise that students are going to need to spend a lot of time with literacy to become literate. Given that, I think kids should spend at least 2-3 hours per day dealing with literacy.
A second premise is that we have multiple goals in literacy and that they all compete for instructional time. I believe that it makes sense to divide the available instructional time among these different goals.
What are these goals? My reading of the research says that students need to learn words and word parts (to read them, to interpret them), they need to be able to read text fluently (with sufficient accuracy, speed, and prosody), they need to be able to understand and interpret the ideas in text, and they need to convey their own ideas through text (writing). These are all critically important goals, and each of them has many sub goals.
I would argue teachers should provide students with explicit instruction and lots of practice time in each of these four learning areas on a daily basis. Rather than focusing on four or five activities that kids should be engaged in everyday, I’d rather have teachers thinking about what activities they should encourage based on the learning goals in each of these areas. Thus, it would be very reasonable to spend 30 minutes on words, 30 minutes on fluency, 30 minutes on reading comprehension, and 30 minutes on writing everyday (on average)—even though the actual activities would vary.
A daily organizing plan that is focused on these outcomes makes greater sense than one based on activities such as read to self or read to someone.
And such a plan makes sense even when using “core reading programs” or “basal readers” because they help teachers to choose among the many options such programs provide.