Curriculum Feedback – English Language Arts, Alberta Education

My Background

My name is Dr. Robin Bright and I am a Language and Literacy professor at the University of Lethbridge with 30 years of teaching, research, and publication experience. I also taught elementary school at the grade 1 and 4-6 levels for ten years. I have authored six books on literacy (primarily on the topics of reading and writing) including a Pearson Canada textbook (co-authored) that is used widely in teacher education programs across Canada. My most recent book will be published this summer by Pembroke Publishers and is entitled, “Sometimes Reading is Hard” Using decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies to inspire fluent, passionate, lifelong readers.

As a teacher educator, I have worked to help prepare hundreds of ELA teachers in K-12 over 30 years. My area of expertise is language and literacy and I worked predominantly with preservice teachers who will be teaching children in the primary grades but also in the upper elementary grades. I am an award-winning teacher both in the school system and at the post-secondary level. I have also served as the Board of Governors Teaching Chair at the University of Lethbridge.

I share this background information with you as a preface to the feedback I am providing about what the new curriculum offers and doesn’t offer in the area of ELA. I have reviewed what appears online for K-6 and offer the following feedback to the curriculum writers. 

We can and must build a strong ELA curriculum for our students and for the future. Here are my observations about how to do this for teachers, parents, and most importantly, students.

Feedback About Proposed “Shifts” in the ELA Curriculum

First, the current ELA curriculum stands out as a thorough, well-considered, research-based, and well-organized document that has been used as an example of an exemplary curriculum not only in Western Canada but beyond our borders. The Preamble, in particular, includes a well-developed understanding of how language is learned that represents current thinking and research throughout North America. Does it need updated and revised? Absolutely. However, it presents a very good starting point for this work.

Second, what appears online can only be referred to as a “bare-bones” approach to ELA. However, even saying that, there are problems that I would like to identify at this stage when Alberta Education is collecting feedback so that it can be addressed. The proposed document that I reviewed will, unfortunately, set back language and literacy development by decades in its simplicity and ignorance of up-to-date and relevant literacy research. I am extremely concerned that the current ELA curriculum has been incorrectly and falsely characterized in a chart labelled “Shifts.” This chart suggests that the current ELA curriculum is missing vital information. This is not true. Everything that is called a “shift” already does indeed appear in the current curriculum and suggests that curriculum writers overlooked important information that is contained in the ELA curriculum.

The Current ELA Curriculum 

I would like to provide an overview of the General Outcomes in the current ELA curriculum to show how well this document meets the literacy needs of students and how the characterization of it in the chart labelled “Shifts” is lacking information. But, also to show where the current curriculum needs to be updated and revised.

The current General Outcomes in the current ELA curriculum are as follows:

GO #1 – these outcomes are about providing the learner with opportunities to think about ideas and experiences and respond personally to texts in order to make connections with what they read, write, view, and hear. Without attention to this important general outcome, the learners’ needs and starting points are not taken into consideration in new learning. The over-arching goal of this outcome is to be able to meet students where they are as language learners (the importance of which is strongly documented in the literature-ie. John Dewey and Maryanne Wolf). 

GO #2 – these outcomes are focused primarily on teaching reading but notice that all the strands of reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and visually representation are included. This is to prevent what has been referred to as a “silo” approach to ELA and has produced very negative results in literacy in the past. Please see this video (2020) from language and literacy expert, Dr. Nancy Frey for an overview of the interrelationships among language strands (also called language arts).

I believe that this section could and should be strengthened by adding a section specific to beginning reading, linguistically and culturally diverse students, and students with a diagnosis of dyslexia (and other learning challenges) to meet the needs of a wide variety of students. The work of Marilyn Jager Adams would be particularly pertinent and helpful for this section.

GO 3# – these outcomes are focused primarily on teaching the skills they need to read, analyze, and evaluate non-fiction information in all its forms. 

Digital technology and texts do not receive enough attention in the current curriculum (it is 20 years old) and this would be a very worthwhile revision point in the curriculum. Look at how students communicate today, and then look at the proposed curriculum and ask, where will they develop the ability to read, understand, and critique digital texts (those they use now and those that are yet to come)? How will they learn to discuss, create, and evaluate online content? How does the curriculum support linguistic and cultural diversity throughout the grades?

GO #4 – these outcomes are focused primarily on teaching writing.

GO #5 – these outcomes are focused primarily on teaching collaboration, respect, and support essential to learning in an ELA classroom.

Feedback About the Specific Components of the Proposed ELA Curriculum 

1. Overview

-literacy is also for appreciation and enjoyment (as stated on p. 2 of the current ELA curriculum) and a statement to this effect needs to be included in a curriculum revision.

-it is unclear by what is meant by “great literary works” until reading further and then we see the inclusion of the inclusion of Greek and Roman classical drama, Ancient Greek Theatre, Mnemosyne (the Guardians of memory), and Homer. I am unsure how motivated students will be as readers in K-6 with these selections. Although I do recommend Sharon Creech’s hilarious book “Absolutely Normal Chaos” as a way to talk about The Odyssey with students in grade 6 and beyond!

-it is unclear to me whether the government plans to mandate the literature that can be taught? This would be a grave mistake. Right now, teachers can access two curriculum documents available to them to make excellent choices about literature to study and to make available to readers that will meet their needs. These are the “Illustrative Examples” and “Authorized Novels and Non-Fiction for Grades 4-12.” Neither document is prescriptive (which is good!) but both provide very good examples of literature and authors that teachers can use in their ELA programs.  However, both documents need to be updated. It is essential that teachers are not hindered in their ability to present students with a wide range of literature that meets their interests, abilities, and developmental needs. As the children’s and young adult literature landscape and published materials continue to grow and expand, using (or worse, mandating) specific titles is detrimental in a curriculum that needs to last years.

-“As a discipline, ELA is positioned to ask how and why we advance certain stories, silence others, and socialize students to think that what we teach them is neutral” (Jeanne Dyches Bissonnette). This idea must be embedded into a curriculum to last for decades.

 -do not limit teachers’ ability to find, choose, and share exemplary literature in all genres for students as a way to motivate students as readers. For more on this topic, please see the writings of Dr. Linda Gambrell (former president of the International Literacy Association), Donalynn Miller, Dr. John Guthrie, Dr. Allan Wigfield, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Cris Tovani, and many others!

2. Shifts in K-6 English

-the statements in this chart are false, specifically in regards to literature. If you look at the “Illustrative Examples for the K-9” curriculum, you will find dozens and dozens of examples of exemplary literature to be used in teaching. However, limiting teachers’ choices for utilizing literature would be the biggest mistake curriculum writers could make going forward. Students need more choice to become confident, enthusiastic, and fluent readers who want to read, not fewer, and any document that inhibits teachers to use a breadth of literature available today in their classrooms will backfire and have the effect of turning students off from reading. See Kelly Gallagher’s book Readicide for more on this topic.

3. Writing

-the description here is inadequate and refers predominantly to the mechanics of writing – this is grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. Writing development is much more than this. The outcomes related to content/ideas, organization, vocabulary, and purposes of writing. What about the writing process, genres of writing, and strategies? For more on writing development, see the work of Donald Graves, Donald Murray, Nancie Atwell, and Lucy Calkins. Writing is not taught nor learned through copying and this is well-documented in the writing research going back to the work of Frank Smith.

4. Reading

– it would be helpful to strengthen the curriculum in the area of beginning reading. Add to General Outcome #2 to highlight the teaching of phonics and phonemic awareness-in a structured way to support teachers and students. And add to the front foundational material an explanation of how language is learned, as the present curriculum does, and add an overview of the structures of language (phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and grapho-phonics) to support teachers’ knowledge of how these contribute to language and literacy development. This will assist teachers in meeting a variety of student’s needs.

– the proposed curriculum organizes the curriculum according to the components of reading, which is good for K-3, but then three of these are dropped (phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency) leaving a weak ELA curriculum lacking in its attention to many important aspects of literacy essential for a robust curriculum beyond grade 3.

-it is suggested here that reading fluency is not part of the present ELA curriculum. This is false. Fluency develops from phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge and leads to vocabulary and comprehension.

-examine the “Illustrative Examples” document, already available, for ideas regarding comprehension strategies. Comprehension as a field of study is being reconsidered by literacy experts worldwide. See the work from the extensive document, Reading For Understanding by P. David Pearson and colleagues, language and literacy experts. Specifically, there is attention being paid to the idea that comprehension leads to action and this should be reflected in a new ELA curriculum.

5. Comprehension 

– comprehension involves what Nancy Frey calls, “skill, will and thrill” of reading. Students need to have the skills to be successful, fluent readers, but they must also want to read and the area of motivation is a concept whose time has come in reading development and should be present in the new curriculum. Finally, the thrill of reading can and should empower students to be critical, active readers (writers, listeners, speakers, viewers, and representers) of text.

-see General Outcome #2 “Use Comprehension Strategies” where it is clear that students learn to use a variety of strategies like asking questions, using prediction, rereading, identifying main idea and supporting ideas, and making inferences. These are not missing from the current curriculum, but they could be emphasized more.

– comprehension as a field of study is being reviewed by literacy experts worldwide. See the work from the extensive document, Reading For Understanding by P. David Pearson and colleagues, language and literacy experts. Specifically, there is attention being paid to the idea that comprehension leads to action and this should be reflected in a new ELA curriculum.

6. Oral Communication

-the current ELA curriculum refers to viewing and visually representing which are also part of oral communication which is not part of the proposed curriculum and I am not sure why. See how oral communication is discussed on p. 2 in the current ELA curriculum as it is not characterized accurately in the proposed document:

Oral language is the foundation of literacy. Through listening and speaking, people communicate thoughts, feelings, experiences, information and opinions, and learn to understand themselves and others. Oral language carries a community’s stories, values, beliefs and traditions. Listening and speaking enable students to explore ideas and concepts, as well as to understand and organize their experiences and knowledge. They use oral language to learn, solve problems and reach goals. To become discerning, lifelong learners, students at all grades need to develop fluency and confidence in their oral language abilities. They benefit from many opportunities to listen and speak both informally and formally fora variety of purposes.

-see the very thoughtful and thorough discussion of “exploratory language” on p. 7 of the current ELA curriculum. This represents well-respected research (from the work of researchers like Gordon Wells in his seminal book Meaning Makers, Catherine Snow, Courtney Cazden, and many others) on how children learn to speak and how their oral language develops into mature and complex dialogue. This type of background information is missing in the proposed curriculum and matters in articulating “why” the curriculum is organized and developed in a particular manner.

-I am not sure how a strong focus on memorizing text and oration is needed in today’s society given the multitude of ways people access information and communicate today. This focus is reminiscent of my days in 4-H and speech competitions. 

**Where are Viewing and Visually Representing in the proposes ELA curriculum?

These are essential aspects of language that are absent from this document. Yet, literacy experts around the world point to the value and the overwhelming need for students to learn “how” to view and represent the information they see and use daily through technology. See more information about digital and media literacy and why it matters at this following website: https://mediasmarts.ca/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIkNqQ8uWP8AIVxAN9Ch2_QQA9EAAYASAAEgKmWfD_BwE

7. Phonological Awareness

-is an oral skill (not a written skill) and does indeed appear in many documents including the Kindergarten curriculum. Please see: https://education.alberta.ca/media/160232/kindergarten-curricululm-overview.pdf

-on p. 26 in the current curriculum, it states that students use phonics and structural analysis. One suggestion I have is that this section be renamed “Use phonological awareness and phonics knowledge” because that more accurately identifies the specific learning outcomes in this section. But, to say that these important components of learning to read are missing from the current curriculum is false. However, I do think that the current curriculum would be usefully revised to include greater emphasis on beginning reading to support teachers and students with specific outcomes related to teaching both phonological (or phonemic) awareness and phonics knowledge.

-you will notice that the current ELA curriculum discusses key strategies for developing phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge through segmenting, blending, long and short vowel sounds, consonant sounds, word parts, contractions, compound words, vowel combinations, digraphs, consonant blends, and letter clusters. This is phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge but perhaps it is not emphasized enough. In the older elementary grades, the current curriculum moves into more sophisticated ways of looking at words in order to increase vocabulary by learning about prefixes and suffixes to read unfamiliar, multisyllable words in context, integrate knowledge of phonics, sight vocabulary and structural analysis with knowledge of language and context clues to read unfamiliar words in context (p. 28).

8. Phonics Knowledge

-it is not correct to state that the current ELA curriculum suggests that phonics is learned in a general way through reading. My experience in classrooms would indicate that K-2 teachers do teach phonics knowledge in a systematic and explicit way using the current curriculum, however, this is an area that could be improved with revision to the current curriculum.

9. Vocabulary and morphology

-this is addressed in the ELA curriculum.

-see p. 23

10. Fluency

-please see p. 22

11. Text Forms

-these are clearly identified in the current ELA curriculum even though the proposed curriculum indicates that text forms are not defined. Please see page 3 where it states:

…texts refer not only to print but also to oral and visual forms that can be discussed, studied and analyzed. In addition, texts are affected and influenced by how they are transmitted, whether by computer, television, radio or book. Students need knowledge, skills and strategies in all six language arts to compose, comprehend and respond to such texts. Oral texts include storytelling, dialogues, speeches and conversations. Visual texts include pictures, diagrams, tableaux, mime and nonverbal communication. Combinations of oral, print or visual texts include videos, films, cartoons, drama and drum dancing.

Feedback on the Sections: Snapshot by Grade (Primary Grades Only)

Kindergarten:

-it is stated that students will copy words and this is fine to a certain extent but should not be at the exclusion of students applying their phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge to write words. Many children learn to read through writing (see the research of Glenda Bissex for a through discussion of this topic). That is why writing cannot be taught as a “silo” separate from reading. This curriculum does not demonstrate the interrelationships among the language arts, which the current curriculum does extremely well. The development of phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge work together to help children learn sound-symbol relationships in writing. This statement is very misleading and suggests incorrectly that learning to write occurs through copying.

-5-years-old children talk in complete sentences? This statement does not show an understanding of how oral language develops, what exploratory language is, and how talk supports reading.

Grades one and two:

-writing is reduced to mechanics in this document as far as I can tell (ie. begin sentences with a capital letter, and end them with a period, question mark or exclamation mark). What about coming up with ideas and developing those ideas to tell a story, explain something, persuade a reader, or share an experience. Writing cannot be reduced to “mechanics” as years of research demonstrate that the writing process is so much more than this. With this definition of writing, how would you ever distinguish between writing that meets expectations and writing that does not, especially if both pieces contain correct grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. 

-students cannot show sound-letter relationships if all they do is copy words? What they do is simply fool teachers that they understand these relationships when they are forced to copy. What they do on their own as writers shows exactly their understanding of how language works.

-writing statements in this proposed document do not show an understanding about how writing develops. Ideas and information are not conveyed through vocabulary, grammar, punctuation (those are primarily mechanics). Ideas are developed and conveyed through brainstorming, talking with others, reading, drawing (cartooning), storyboarding and playing.

Grade three:

-the proposed curriculum says that students will read complex words – but there is no discussion of morphology, syllabication, compound words, blending and segmenting which are all part of teaching decoding at this level (which the current ELA curriculum does).

In conclusion, I want to help build an ELA curriculum that will support Albertans moving forward into the future. Let’s make it relevant, encompassing, and based on current research for a new generation.

Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity.