How one district literacy coordinator helps deliver consistent instruction across a large and diverse district

By: | November 1, 2021
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Sarah Fontana

At Round Lake Area Schools, our greatest challenge in literacy education is making sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to the systems and pedagogy we believe in as a district. We are a large unit district, with approximately 7,000 students. Just over 80% of our students come from low-income backgrounds, and about a third of our students are English language learners. The majority of our students are Hispanic, representing 78% of the population, while our white and Black students represent the remaining 12% and 7%, respectively. We serve five different communities with 11 schools, including five elementary schools, an early education center, and a kindergarten.

Of course, as with any district, our teachers and literacy interventionists and administrators all have different backgrounds and experiences. Some of them learned to teach reading with an explicitly phonics-based approach, while others may have more experience with a whole-language approach or something else entirely. Our district believes explicit, phonics-based instruction is core to our foundational skills versus a whole language or even balanced literacy approach.

With all of that going on, it is no wonder that trying to get everyone pulling in the same direction can be a challenge. Here is how we are bringing everyone together on the same page in a challenging environment.

Adopting a unified, skills-based approach

Generally, we do not believe in a canned curriculum and prefer to create a homegrown curriculum based on the Common Core State Standards, while consulting the Illinois standards, as well.

We do believe in explicit phonics instruction and focusing on foundational skills and phonemic awareness. Trying to unify our approach to phonics was actually what initiated changes to our literacy programming, in fact. I began talking with our reading interventionists when I entered this role four years ago, asking questions such as, “What do we have available? What are we using for phonics instruction? What interventions are we doing? What is working for our students?” It turned out the answers varied based on experience and location.

For our literacy curriculum, we needed programming that was appropriate for all students and phonics-based but still made room for guided reading, something we believe is an important piece of meeting students where they are at. We decided to adopt Reading Horizons, and we have been rolling it up one grade each year, beginning with our kindergarten students in 2019. The combination of Reading Horizons, guided reading, and a strong writing plan has created a curriculum we are proud of.

Since we do prefer homebrewed curricula and resources to the canned variety, alignment could be quite a challenge. When we try to supplement high-frequency words, for example, we like to organize them in alignment with Reading Horizons. Since both our district and Reading Horizons are skills-based, it is pretty easy to align Fry lists to lessons students are currently learning.

Districtwide professional development

Strong programming that can unify your district around effective instruction is necessary, but excellent teachers who understand what they are teaching and why are the strength of any district. Fortunately, we have a very robust professional learning department in our district.

We have an excellent director of professional development and, in addition to school improvement plan days for PD, we are also able to deliver PD once a week. Every teacher in our district also participates in 45 minutes of uninterrupted PLC time daily.

Providing our teachers with so much opportunity for professional learning makes it a bit easier to implement district-wide components across all our schools. Delivering consistent messaging to all first-grade teachers, for example, is much easier when they are all in the room together. These district-wide conversations ensure that if anyone has questions, everyone hears the same answers.

Balancing paper and pencil with 1:1 technology

Like many districts, we became a one-to-one technology environment as a result of the pandemic. This year will be our first in-person school year in which every student has an iPad in the elementary grades.

We believe that students learn literacy best with paper and pencil as their main tool. Comprehension is better, they develop a stronger orthographic memory, and reading and writing involve more senses than doing it online. And, of course, we do not want young children spending hours looking at screens every day.

On the other hand, there are literacy benefits to having these devices in every student’s hands, such as the Reading Horizons Discovery software to supplement our teaching. We are also fortunate to deliver science and social studies instruction every day, which is essential to strong literacy development. Devices used across content areas is an opportunity for students to read more broadly in those subjects and develop their literacy skills outside of the English language arts block. It is a balancing act, and we will find the sweet spot that works best for our students soon enough.

Our whole approach to literacy is similar. Identify the core principles that work for our students, give teachers the opportunity to learn them inside and out, and bake in a little wiggle room to fine tune it all as needed.

Sarah Fontana is the teaching and learning coordinator for ELA and literacy at Round Lake Area Schools 116. She can be reached at sfontana@rlas-116.org.