The Northern Alberta Reading Specialists’ Council Response to the Alberta draft English Language Arts and Literature Kindergarten to Grade Six curriculum

The Northern Alberta Reading Specialists’ Council (N.A.R.S.C.) is a Canadian professional council associated with the International Literacy Association. We have 42 members. All members are first and foremost teachers and all have a Bachelor of Education degree and classroom teaching experience. N.A.R.S.C. members are required to have a Master’s degree in curriculum and pedagogy with a focus on literacy and several have a PhD in this area. N.A.R.S.C. members work in a variety of roles including classroom teachers, literacy and reading consultants, teacher educators, educational researchers, administrators, and curriculum specialists.   

Collectively, our Council membership does not support the Alberta Draft Curriculum.

The draft offers a narrow view of what counts as literacy and is not well grounded in currently accepted understandings of literacy in the 21st century. In order for teachers and administrators to effectively use the draft curriculum document, or any curriculum, developmentally appropriate progressions of learning outcomes are needed. Generally, the draft curriculum reads as a teacher resource that provides technical background knowledge to teachers, rather than developmentally appropriate outcomes for students. The draft as it is prescribes a very limited way of teaching, learning, and assessment. 

This letter outlines some of our observations of the draft and, particularly, those that raise major concerns about how and what future Albertans will learn in elementary school.  

The lack of cohesion in theoretical vision and structure as well as the limited view of literacy makes for a document that fails to adequately inform appropriate literacy practices. 

Missing Sociocultural Perspectives:

  • Literacy is embedded within social, cultural, and power structures that contextualize what people do with literacy and how literacy is a part of their daily lives and experiences. The draft draws from a limited view of literacy despite that most literacy theory recognizes how a comprehensive understanding of literacy involves seeing literacy as more than reading and writing. 

Oral Language: 

  • Oral language, the foundation of literacy learning, is used to share ideas, express feelings and opinions, retell, solve problems, develop critical thinking in discussions, and build understandings. This is in contrast to the draft, which states that reading and writing is the foundation of literacy and English language development.
  • Oral language should not be viewed as primarily a performance art. In the draft, references to oral language often focus on speeches and presentations and there is very little attention paid to functional uses of language, such as the ability to use language to cooperate with others.
  • A strong connection exists between listening comprehension and reading comprehension, which further emphasizes the need to recognize the role oral language plays in literacy and the need to intentionally support oral language in classrooms.

21st Century Literacies

  • Listening, speaking, viewing, and representing receive inadequate attention in the draft but are critically significant to an effective, overall language arts program, especially in the 21st century when many texts are multimodal and visual.
  • Ideas of digital literacies, that is learning to use technology and digital tools for literacy learning and expression, are largely absent from the draft and should be embedded in learning. Digital literacy involves much more than simply reading and writing digital texts.
  • Literacy is learned and used across the curriculum and in discipline specific ways. The draft, however, claims that “Literacy is primarily taught in English language arts and literature”. This is a narrow belief of literacy and literacy teaching is not simply the responsibility of English Language Arts teachers. 

Critical Literacy: 

  • Critical literacy helps us to understand ourselves, others and the world. It brings about justice as it helps identify and reduce perpetuating stereotypes, recognize how power is embedded in texts, shows how literacy can help us take social action; it shows us and highlights that there are multiple viewpoints in the world and not only one way to think. 
  • The draft describes critical thinking as simply examining important questions across subject areas by researching effectively, thinking on your feet, and communicating in well-reasoned writing (Key Themes Fact Sheet). 
  • Many texts students encounter today, including false news, require critical thinking and critical reading. By limiting critical literacy to simply comparing multiple texts, students are only learning about reliability of information, rather than about how to analyze and critically examine the information it contains.
  • In writing and communicating outcomes, the draft has not included ideas of critical literacy that help students learn to write and represent for change, justice, and the pursuit of equity. 
  • Other parts of critical literacy missing from the draft include interrogating texts, thinking about what is said and what is not said, thinking about how texts position us, how they hold bias, how they are written for a purpose and from a perspective, and how texts are connected to cultural and social beliefs. 
  • Literature needs to engage 21st century learners, be developmentally appropriate, be culturally responsive, and address lifestyle diversity. The draft lacks recognition that texts can help understand various communities such as Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour and LGBTQIA2S+ communities as well as cultures and diverse groups. We need to move towards teaching children to recognize biases and that they exist in literature and in oral and visual texts. Children also need to see themselves and others reflected in texts. 

Other Missing Theory:

  • The draft misses the understanding that experiencing the joy of reading and an appreciation for literacy contribute to engagement, intentionality, and literacy independence. 
  • Choice, interest, and background knowledge matter to text selection and comprehension. Further theory also supports that learning to choose texts contributes to lifelong literacy. Using prescribed texts and book lists counter the idea that funds of knowledge matter.
  • Literacy is about making connections to our lived experiences and those of others. Learning to draw from funds of knowledge must reside with learning strategies and skills to make meaning. It is detrimental that the outcomes connected to understanding oneself, others, and the world through literature and other texts have been removed from the curriculum in the current draft.   

The narrow understanding of literacy theory in the draft impedes comprehensive language arts teaching, learning, and assessment. The current outcomes project a particular way of teaching and assessing student learning that reduces language arts to a limited set of skills as opposed to practicing literacy in authentic ways. 

Isolated Skills:

  • By “isolated skills”, we mean that the curriculum does not require children to actually use this knowledge in any functional way. In fact, it is so heavy with these skills, little time is left for real uses of language. 
  • Specifically, the draft is overloaded with isolated phonological, phonics, spelling and grammar skills, and, although they are essential skills, are only one part of a comprehensive language arts program and should work together with other aspects of the language arts program. The emphasis on isolated skills means that ‘find the facts’ (e.g. antonyms, homophones, closed syllables, declarative sentences) types of testing could be approved. 
  • In addition to learning skills and applying strategies, literacy is also developed in real, authentic practices and literacy experiences. Such contexts for learning with young children include learning literacy through books and other literature, songs, and poems; therefore, literacy skills should be taught contextually in authentic and relevant ways.
  • Interpreting how to apply the many isolated skills in the draft curriculum is very subjective. In the draft, students learn skills, not how and when to apply their knowledge and understanding of literacy in different contexts. In the current curriculum, students had to be able to apply phonics, structural analysis, and context (which includes morphological analysis) to identify unfamiliar words. 
  • The curriculum emphasizes that reading largely involves decoding every word; however, research supports that children need to use a wide range of comprehension and word identification strategies that may include phonics in addition to using grammar and language meaning (e.g. vocabulary and background knowledge) information. 
  • Outcomes should support instructional practices that build bridges between phonological and grammar skills and the actual use of literacy.

Phonological Awareness and Phonics: 

  • Phonological awareness is connected to fluency and comprehension and should not be separated from its connection to meaning making. 
  • Invented spellings (words students write as they learn to spell) are evidence of individual students’ phonological awareness. They show teachers what students know and help to guide  teachers’ instruction. Allowing students to use invented spelling as they learn gives them the opportunity to practice what they know and experiment with language patterns. Unfortunately, the emphasis in the draft curriculum seems to be on correct spelling, even for kindergarten children. There is not much point in stressing visual-sound relationships if you are not expecting young children to use invented spelling in their own writing.

Developmentally Inappropriate Outcomes and Expectations:

  • The overall grade level targets are worrying. 
  • Grade one students are expected to read and spell 125 words by the end of the year, and grade twos, 300 words. Is the draft promoting testing of all these words before students ‘move on’? This is problematic and does not support good teaching practices that support individual student needs for reading and spelling. 
  • Questions also arise around who decides which words, or word lists should be used, as language is deeply connected to context and should come from the words students need in their daily lives. Word lists do not support differentiation in language arts and can limit literacy development, especially for students who can already read and spell the words on the list, or can read or spell many other words not on the list. 
  • The draft includes content that is not always developmentally or socially appropriate. Content can also come from student interests, activities within the classroom or school, and other subject areas but this is not expressed in the draft. Specific content does not need to be listed in a language arts program of studies. 
  • Outcomes related to comprehension are limited as there is an overemphasis on lower level thinking such as remembering and understanding. The draft is missing higher levels like applying, evaluating, analyzing, and creating. When these are missing, literacy in other subject areas will be impaired. It will not prepare students to be able to effectively use texts beyond the language arts classroom. 
  • There is little evidence of literature in the curriculum, and what is described is developmentally inappropriate for elementary children. Shakespeare, Homer, and Aristotle’s speeches are hardly the engaging literary food of childhood. The ‘Subject-Specific Guidelines’ also indicate that we can expect more ancient classical texts like Boewulf and The Odyssey, and that they need to be ‘unabridged’. We live in an age where there is an absolute wealth of high quality children’s literature that will engage and delight youngsters. Even Aesop’s fables can be relevant when they are illustrated and presented in easier language as poems and plays.
  • Literature needs to be matched with readers and not come from a prescribed list. Interests, prior knowledge, readers’ skills and strategies, and varied genres all influence what children read.

On the surface, the draft includes outcomes and ideas that support reading and writing but it is not enough. The draft, and its narrow focus on a limited view of literacy, has eliminated or neglected important understandings of literacy that are also required for a balanced and comprehensive language arts program. Unfortunately, by drawing from a limited view, the draft sets forth specific, but outdated, literacy practices, easily assessed through oversimplified tests of skills. Students need opportunities to own their learning in order to become adaptable, flexible, and resilient, literate citizens capable of meeting the challenges ahead of them.

This draft requires substantial revision. Students will suffer if this is their language arts program of study. They will learn isolated skills but will not learn to love and practice literacy.  

Please feel free to contact us at narscexec@gmail.com for questions or comments or follow us on Twitter @NARSCinYEG. 

Respectfully,

The Northern Alberta Reading Specialists’ Council