Response from Alberta Reading Specialists to Alberta Draft ELA Curriculum 2021

Reading Specialists Respond to the 2021 Draft Alberta English Language Arts Curriculum

Although a great deal of feedback has been directed to several aspects of the new curriculum draft, we would like to address the Language Arts strand. We are certain that personnel involved in creating, and ultimately delivering, the new curriculum have the same goals in mind. We wish to help young children become engaged and literate listeners, speakers, readers and writers to enable them to be fully functioning members of our society. Unfortunately, the Language Arts draft curriculum is unlikely to achieve those goals. 

Our concerns focus on several areas of the 2021 draft curriculum:

It contains too much content especially in the early grades.

Teachers may need two years to ‘get through’ expectations. Undoubtedly ‘getting through’ would only be viable with high achieving students due to the difficult nature of some of the content. Goals are so prescriptive and closed ended that differentiation of learning is threatened. For example, grade 2 students are expected to spell 300 high frequency words, “segment and identify the sounds in words that have five or more phonemes”, “identify phonemes in words that have 3 or more syllables”, know about declarative, interrogative and exclamatory sentences, identify subject-verb agreement in sentences, identify pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs and prepositions, and open and closed syllables together with multiple spelling patterns (e,g, CVC, CVCe/VVC), amongst a myriad of other expectations. 

It moves literacy learning back to teaching isolated grammar items and emphasis on one cueing system in reading

While addressing the incredible length of the expectations for students, it may be a good time to focus on the actual content of some sections of the curriculum. The tone and content of areas addressing grammar, word recognition and analysis, and spelling are reminiscent of the Orton Gillingham method of teaching dyslexics in 1935 and the Plaid Phonics workbooks of the 1980s. The curriculum in these areas provides lists of skills, terms to be memorized, parts of speech to be identified, and isolated grammar and phonics training. One can visualize moving back to the time when it was thought to be helpful for students to use worksheets and circle adverbs, underline subjects in sentences, and associate a picture with a consonant blend or digraph. In the intervening half century or more since these practices were considered acceptable, we have moved on to asking children to use language for meaningful reading and writing situations, and grammar is taught in context, not isolation. Reading and writing require complex behaviours and language strategies, and progress is not achieved through an emphasis on isolated skills. In addition, the time available in a school day for engaging students in meaningful reading and writing activities will be seriously eroded by the time spent on isolated skills. 

The heavy emphasis on phonics in the primary grades seems to send the message that reading is rather a simple, lock-step activity. Know the sounds and how to analyze and blend them and you can successfully read anything! That message is not true. No one is doubting that phonological awareness, phonetic knowledge, morphology and word structures are absolutely necessary in teaching reading, but these areas need to be combined with word solving strategies from syntax and broader meaning cues. Instruction that focuses on strategies, and teacher prompts that encourage children to use a wide range of cues for working out words, should underpin any new curriculum. Sadly, we have experienced the type of emphasis on decoding as the primary thrust in early reading in the last century and have worked with children who believed that every word in our language can be ‘sounded out’ ( e.g. ‘have’, ‘the’ and ‘eight’) without reference to syntactic and semantic cueing systems. We don’t want to revisit it as extensive remediation is then necessary to expand children’s repertoires of reading strategies, and to ensure that they recognize that reading involves meaning and the use of a range of strategies other than just decoding. 

The curriculum also implies, in primary grades, that we are not aiming for comprehension until children have reached some sort of word recognition fluency. For example, the ‘hard labour’ of word solving even continues in the comprehension section of grade one. We think it is absolutely vital that comprehension is emphasized from the start as it is the goal of all reading.

The approach to spelling in the new draft is also outdated. It is hard to imagine how focusing on words with CVC, VCC, CVCe and VCC etc patterns offers any meaning for the teacher let alone a young student. Working on words by building them, attending to patterns, and transferring those patterns to new words would seem to be more productive, in addition to building personal word books and using picture and regular dictionaries.

There are an over-abundance of terms and concepts that are not useful in promoting literacy learning.

We are unsure whether the writers of the vocabulary, word recognition, word analysis and grammar sections of the curriculum thought that it would look like a ‘more serious’ document if they included dozens of concepts and terms at each grade level. We wonder if the people who framed these sections have had little or no elementary classroom teaching experience. This is especially apparent in the primary sections of the draft document. Terms like Tier Two and Tier Three words (Incidentally what are Tier One words?), digraphs, diphthongs, alliteration, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, similes, imagery, antonyms, bases and affixes, imperative sentences, possessive pronouns, suffixes as morphemes, are developmentally inappropriate for young children and make no useful contribution towards literacy learning.

The current draft maximizes skills and minimizes motivation, engagement and critical thinking in reading.

Throughout the draft students are expected to describe, explain, identify and answer questions after reading. What is lacking is students engaging in open-ended discussions in book clubs or reading circles. These informal groups encourage children to inquire, ask their own questions, and share opinions and ideas. Through such discussions children’s engagement and motivation increases and their comprehension is stretched through comparing their ideas with others.

This curriculum draft is a strange mixture of ‘old-time skills’ and highly prescriptive expectations, and threads of productive curriculum materials that are more open ended.

There is no conceptual fusion of ideas that create an intelligible framework for learning. For example, the text forms and organization section has promise until it diverges into a developmentally inappropriate study of sonnets in grade 3, iambic pentameter, and Shakespeare’s use of blank verse in grade 5, and the recitation of Shakespeare and exploration of Greek epic poetry in grade 6. This section could be redeemed with some careful curating to eliminate developmentally unsuitable examples. When analyzing the curriculum we move through the potential for a sensible curriculum to turn the page and land in the middle of obscure and outdated grammar and spelling expectations. This draft has no central focus. Nobody has asked the question, “ What sound philosophical underpinnings do we want for an updated, teachable curriculum?” Right now there are fragments that are difficult to pin together.

The curriculum offers ‘out of the blue’ comments and intrusions.

The draft curriculum certainly holds your attention when reading it because an appropriate section suddenly changes into a surprising inclusion that takes your breath away! For example:

-“Read simple fully predictable and decodable books independently” in Grade One. No book is ‘fully’ predictable or ‘fully’ decodable. All require integration of cues from all language cueing systems.

-The comments on “voice” through the curriculum also seem like strange intrusions. For example, “Speaking is the sharing of one’s voice and it must be cared for and appreciated” (Kindergarten). We would suggest that the Grade 6 inclusion of Oration comes into the same category of a strange inclusion. It is doubtful whether it is developmentally appropriate or relevant to 21st century 11- and 12-year-olds to study Aristotle’s ‘ethos’, ‘pathos’ and logos’ in addition to Cicero’s five elements of giving a speech! 

– Surprisingly, the curriculum metes out comprehension strategies over the grades as if there is a set sequence of difficulty with analyzing, predicting, inferring, sequencing, evaluating, making connections and self-monitoring. The changing variables over the grades are not these strategies but the levels of text difficulty and the interests of the students. Children can actively use the full range of strategies from Kindergarten onwards.

Evidence for radical change is not apparent.

Usually, drastic changes in curricula occur when lack of success in a particular area is apparent in a province. This is hardly the case in Alberta. The world envies our literacy results. In the most recent PISA results (Program for International Student Assessment, 2018), Albertan 15-year-olds ranked third in the world in Reading assessments. It does not appear to be a province in need of a major curriculum overhaul that includes going back to isolated grammar and phonetic instruction that relegates comprehension to second place after rigorous decoding. 

In conclusion, there are sections of this curriculum that are relatively sound and only need reviewing to exclude unnecessary terminology, to ensure concepts are developmentally appropriate and relevant for children living in the 21st century, and to include engagement in critical thinking through open-ended discussions. However, the primary grades (Kindergarten through Grade 3) need more radical work. The isolated grammar concepts and the heavy emphasis on terminology and prescriptive outcomes need to be re-envisioned to ensure that word solving, word recognition and spelling are taught in more balanced ways, and that comprehension is the goal throughout the reading process. 

It is difficult to support a curriculum that has no central, unifying approach to literacy learning and alternately promotes some meaningful approaches in oral language, reading and writing, and then takes valuable classroom time away from them by focusing on myriads of isolated skills which have extremely doubtful utility. We suggest that you re-engage teachers and literacy experts who have actually worked as classroom teachers to redraft the primary curriculum and to revise the Grades 4-6 components.

Sincerely,

Anne Brailsford, Ph.D: retired Alberta Teacher and Reading Specialist
Janice Coles, Ph.D : retired Alberta Teacher and Reading Specialist
Elva Jones, M.Ed: retired Alberta Teacher and Reading Specialist
Wendy Legaarden, M.Ed: retired Alberta Teacher and Reading Specialist
Kathy Nawrot, M.Ed: retired Alberta Teacher and Reading Specialist
Mary Winton, M.Ed: retired Alberta Teacher and Reading Specialist

Copies sent to:

Rachel Notley, Leader of the Opposition 
Sarah Hoffman, Opposition Deputy Leader & Education Critic 
Janis Irwin, Opposition Deputy Whip
Rakhi Pancholi, Opposition Children’s Services Critic
Maren Aukerman, Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary
Trisha Estabrooks, Board Chair, Edmonton Public Schools
George Georgiou, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta
Darrel Robertson, Superintendent, Edmonton Public Schools
Edgar Schmidt, Dean of Education, Concordia University
Jennifer Tupper, Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta
Lynne Wiltse, Associate Chair, Undergraduate Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta