On any given day, students in Miranda Eller’s third-grade classroom may be sprawled on the floor, crouched under a countertop, huddled together in groups or just sitting at their desks with a book during reading time.
The seating arrangement may be unconventional, but the Enterprise Elementary teacher said it allows the students to be comfortable while they are reading, so they can enjoy it more.
“We want them to learn to love reading,” Eller said.
While developing a love of reading is one of the goals during reading time, everything else, including the books the students read, is carefully thought out and designed to improve reading competencies and ensure students are learning what they need to succeed.
This is all part of the new English-Language Arts curriculum being taught in Federal Way elementary schools.
Melissa Spencer, P-5 elementary standards-based instruction coordinator, said the elementary ELA curriculum was adopted by the School Board in April 2016. The learning modules selected were based on a number of factors, including whether it aligned to Common Core State Standards, if it supported teacher best practices and its relevency to students’ experiences.
One of the learning modules adopted that Eller said is especially helpful is the Independent Reading Level Assessment framework. Through IRLA, Eller can establish at what level students’ are reading and identify gaps in students’ phonics abilities.
“Last year, it was nearly impossible for me to tell, unless I was a reading specialist, which I’m not — I’m a general education teacher,” Eller said of IRLA. “This gives me the tools as if I were a reading specialist.”
Once Eller has that baseline guide of a students’ abilities, she will develop and create an individualized plan for each student. That includes setting a power goal with the students that outlines areas students should focus on while they are reading. If a student is reading at above third-grade level, the power goal is tailored to that student’s abilities, such as determining the meaning of a word based on the context in which it is used.
A benefit of the power goals is it makes learning less intimidating for students, Spencer said.
“When you can see a stepping stone, as opposed to the horizon line, kids are more motivated,” she said.
Eller, a second-year teacher, said helping students with their reading has been so much easier this year compared with last because of the ELA adoption.
Another nice thing about the ELA curriculum, Eller said, is this year, no matter what school students are attending, all the students are learning the same content matter. So if third-grade students are learning and reading about frogs at one school, so are the third-graders in other Federal Way schools. The content is geared toward Common Core State Standards, which define the skills students are supposed to know during a school year.
With all classes focusing and testing on the same content, drawing from the same tools, when teachers gather to meet, Eller said, it is easy for them to speak about students’ progress or challenges and share ideas on how to improve learning.
“We’re all on the same team in Federal Way now, whereas we couldn’t say that before,” she said. “Those conversations are happening now that weren’t happening before.”
Because the curriculum is already aligned, the learning goals established and lesson suggestions included in the education modules, Eller said she spends less time planning lessons and is able to be more purposeful with her time and what she teaches.
Spencer said that was one of the goals of the new ELA adoption. Having the tools, resources and instructional strategies already identified and readily available to teachers is intended to help teachers, as well as improve students’ learning.
“It frees teachers up to spend their time thinking about the students in front of them and how to meet their needs, as opposed to taking the time looking for stuff,” she said.
Eller said she also likes the fact that all the lessons tie in with the next, so what the students learn the day before relates to what they learn that day and the next. Eller said the students get multiple opportunities to write on topics, to explain concepts and apply what they have learned before with what they are learning now.
“They should not go home and say, ‘I don’t know what I learned today,’” Eller said.
Eller said, with the adoption of the new ELA curriculum, she is much more confident that she is teaching what the students need to learn and she is helping them become successful. That, Eller said, is so important for children and their outlook on school and learning.
“If they think they can do third grade, they think they can do fourth,” she said.
Spencer said the instructional teams continue to make sure the curriculum adopted also allows the teachers to be successful. She said the curriculum guides are reviewed every year and are re-written or revised as needed, with materials added to support teachers or as holes in curriculum or resources are identified.