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What the English Language Arts Curriculum Draft Gets Wrong

As a researcher who specializes in literacy, I read the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum draft for Alberta with grave concern.  I draw upon decades of experience working in the field of literacy with children, teachers, and curricula in the US and Canada.  I primarily focus my critique not on individual item-level problems with the document, though there are a number of these as well that will need to be addressed, too.  Instead, drawing on a research-informed approach to what matters, I focus on larger-level gaps and problems with the proposed curriculum, and why I see it as currently weak and not ready for implementation.  

  1.  The ELA curriculum provides limited opportunity for higher order or critical thinking.  Young children can and should think in ways that stretch them to imagine, evaluate, consider, explore, justify, and analyze, but there are scant opportunities for this in the current curriculum.  This curriculum contains way more things under “knowledge” and “understanding” (both very passive in the way this curriculum is built) than under “skills and procedures” (and even among “skills and procedures,” many items represent little more than identification or recall, with a minority of outcomes focus on deeper thinking).  I can point to specific gaps as well.  There is a wealth of research indicating that young children can and should engage in inferencing about texts.  Inferencing means interpreting the text to reach understandings that are not directly stated, and it is an absolutely critical skill for comprehension.  Yet this curriculum only introduces that in third grade.  There is a wealth of research indicating that younger students can profitably discuss and disagree about texts with each other, yet this is only introduced in fifth grade.   Even in 6th grade, most of the skills and procedures listed as outcomes depend on recalling and identifying (low on Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking levels); opportunities to justify, critique, and argue are few and far between.   My worry is not only that children are missing out on opportunities to flex these muscles and develop them, but that they will find the curriculum dull and unengaging if they are not taken seriously as young people capable of thinking (not just memorizing and applying reading/writing skills).
  1. While there is frequent mention of digital text, there is no meaningful opportunity for students to learn vital digital literacy skills.  For example, at a minimum, by the end of elementary school, students should be able to distinguish between advertising and other kinds of content.  They should have been exposed to the 3 vital questions that Stanford researchers suggest are needed (i.e., “Who is behind the information? What is the evidence? What do other sources say?”) for informed media consumption.  There are many other gaps as well, including no opportunity for students to learn about the affordances and particularities of moving images, how social media works, the elements of quality design and layout of visually-oriented presentations and materials, creating content for the web (e.g., through blogs), the relationships and tensions between words and images, and so on.  The “Viewing and Representing” strand that was integral in the currently used curriculum has been almost entirely left out – both in terms of electronic multimedia and in terms of more traditional forms of visual representation.  This is a step backward, not forward.
  1. The curriculum is long on knowing about things, but short on actually practically using texts to accomplish real-world purposes, and indeed short overall on doing real things in the realm of literacy.  For example, students could go through their entire K-6 curriculum and never write a letter (it is mentioned as an option for writing in a place or two, and kids are expected to know what a letter is, but there is no clear expectation that they will generate their own work in this genre).  There is no emphasis on reading or writing for authentic purposes that matter to children.  There is an emphasis on formal oral speaking, which is helpful and useful, but students are not asked to think about what audiences outside of the teacher they might want to engage with, nor what reading/writing certain texts might help them do in the world.  
  1. There is no attention to well-researched ways of building or maintaining literacy engagement and motivation, even though the research clearly indicates that these are important for reading achievement and that literacy motivation tends to decline for children over the course of their schooling. The ELA curriculum does not acknowledge students’ own interests or deliberately build joy in reading and working with text.  It does not acknowledge or recognize the importance of various genres of text that can be powerful motivators for children, from graphic novels to spoken word poetry to culturally relevant texts; nor does it emphasize curricular opportunities that have been shown to develop motivation (e.g., exercising choice in what is read, embedding content reading in deeper thematic exploration that involves active experience).  Similar issues exist in the writing curriculum, where motivation is an even bigger area of concern than in reading.
  1. The ELA curriculum is unclear on whether and how it will interface with other subject areas, even though content area literacy is absolutely vital in the learning of other subject area content.  Some questions here include: How and where will students be asked to engage in reading texts related to that content?  When, how and why will students be asked to read, analyze, and compare primary source documents when reading history, as is done in some excellent history curricula in the US? When and how will students be introduced to genre-specific conventions that help them read scientific text? If ELA has second graders divide texts into two simple categories, those that are imaginary (fiction) or real (non-fiction), where will they categorize the religious stories that they are expected to learn in social studies?
  1. The ELA curriculum claims to include literature, but the literature it contains is very limited and limiting.  The curriculum never once asks students to read a novel (nor even have a novel read to them).  Although “great” works of literature are referenced several times, there is no information on what these are, and the works that are mentioned with identifiable authors are only written by white men from a long time ago, none of whom were Canadian.  The importance of contemporary literature, of Canadian content, of texts that represent a range of experiences and situations that resonate for children and provide “windows” into the experiences of others and “mirrors” into their own experiences, are never acknowledged.  The important role of choice in building readers who want to read is never acknowledged.   And many genres are simply left out entirely.  It is important to know: Will teachers have prerogative to determine what literature best meets the needs of their students under this curriculum?  If not, who will decide what “great works of literature” are, and what will be included?  What criteria will be used?  If literature is pre-selected, will all children see themselves in the literature selected, whether they be Francophone or immigrant or LGBTQIA children? Will there be Canadian content and texts from diverse authors?
  1. Oral language is largely reduced to learning vocabulary and giving formal speeches.  The importance of developing students’ oral language in other ways is minimized.  There is virtually no mention of peer-to-peer dialogue, for example, nor of creating moving visual images that involve oral language in appealing and generative ways; and higher-level discussion of textual content is not introduced until 5th grade.
  1. Comprehension instruction is based on older research about strategy instruction and fails to take into account more recent research that highlights high-quality text discussion, the role of reading volume, etc.  The evidence base for teaching comprehension strategies is older, and much of the more recent research suggests that discussion can be an effective (and potentially more engaging) lever for comprehension development.  Recent research suggests that, when strategies continue to be taught, they should be addressed in flexible ways embedded in discussion and other more organic forms of instruction rather than taught in isolated, list-like fashion.  Other recent work suggests fruitful avenues for embedding vocabulary learning in discussion-rich settings, but this curriculum does not build on those insights.  To my knowledge, there is no research base supporting the specific order of the learning progressions for comprehension strategies that are introduced here, at least for typically developing readers, which raises the question of why it is sequenced in these ways.  Moreover, I am deeply concerned that the demands of this new curriculum will crowd out one of the big strengths I’ve seen in the current curriculum — room for student to read a great deal with self-selected text; high reading volume is associated with greater reading proficiency.
  1. The overspecification of certain kinds of outcomes does not take into account individual variation in children.  The National Research Council in the United States has gone on record saying that high-quality standards for curricula should be “parsimonious” – that is, that curricula should not over-specify outcomes.  While some degree of specificity can be helpful, and more specification than in the previous version was needed for some areas, this version has swung far in the direction of itemizing every last piece of discrete knowledge.  What about children who struggle with learning information in this way, or who are simply not yet ready for particular content? What about children who have already mastered that content and are ready for more challenging content?  Over-specifying outcomes can easily lead to some students unnecessarily being labeled as “failing” and disengaging out of frustration (and their teachers being labeled as “failing” as well), with other students being bored and under-challenged and disengaging for that reason.  
  1. The overspecification of certain kinds of outcomes makes it more difficult to teach text in research-based, more integrated ways.  I worry that the level of specification will also end up crowding out other aspects of curriculum that are important but are less specified or, as outlined here, sometimes not mentioned at all.  For example, teachers may feel compelled to lead students through questioning “activities” rather than having student engage in authentic discussion where their questions could organically appear – even though open-ended inquiry may be a more effective way for this goal to be reached.  Teachers may feel compelled to ignore other aspects of writing style that students identify as important (and that are!) because they are not on the list of writing features that is pre-specified as things students are supposed to be able to recognize.  Too many objectives may also be counter-productive by setting unrealistic targets that available instructional time simply cannot meet.
  1. The ELA curriculum never mentions the needs, challenges, or strengths of English learner students or any other specific learner population.  Research indicates the English learners may have different needs and strengths in some cases than students whose only language is English.  How are teachers being primed to attend to those differences?  How does the curriculum take into account neurodiverse children, such as those with ADHD?  How does the curriculum prime teachers to meet children where they are?
  1. Some educational terminology is misused, likely leading to confusion and poor implementation.  I will point to a few examples.  “Discussion” in the research literature typically means a particular kind of thing – student-centered discussion in which there is cross-talk among students, where students have some measure of interpretive authority, and where the topic is richly discussable.  It is not appropriate to use the word “discuss” for things that are not generally rich topics for discussion, for example, “Discuss the difference between poems that rhyme and those that do not” (Grade K).  It is also misleading because it suggests a higher level of thinking than students are actually being asked to engage in.  Something that requires simple recall/identification or is just told to the students by the teacher should never be called discussion.  “Synthesize” is similarly used in several places where it is unlikely to involve the skill of synthesis as articulated in Bloom’s taxonomy (e.g., “synthesize texts as a summary” is one listed outcome even though synthesis is generally considered a higher level task than summarizing).  Finally, there is a misalignment between the terminology of some of the overarching learning outcomes and the actual outcomes listed under them.  For example, in Grade 3 students are asked to “investigate how phonics connects to word formation and supports the process of reading and writing,” yet the actual skills and procedures all involve lower level skills (recognize, apply, and decode) – no investigation at all, that I could find. 
  1. It is not clear that these standards have been developed with the chronological age of Albertan students clearly in mind, since students in Alberta are, on average, several months younger than many students in the US.  For example, the age cut-off for entering kindergartners in California is a full 3 months earlier than the age cut-off for children in Alberta, and Virginia kindergartners have a cut-off a full 2 months earlier.  While it is not clear what sources were used for determining what is appropriate at each grade level, it would be a serious problem if US-based targets were used.  At a minimum, the ways in which the targets were determined should be made explicit so that it is clear how age-appropriateness was determined.  

These points, taken together, suggest that the ELA curriculum is in need of fundamental rethinking if this is to truly prepare students for the 21st Century.  The fact that the curriculum development process was rushed and did not seriously draw upon the expertise of a robust and diverse group of educators and experts no doubt contributed to the problems faced now.  We owe it to the children of Alberta to do it again and get it right.

Maren Aukerman
Werklund Research Professor
University of Calgary