English Language Arts (ELA)
Why study ELA?
In today’s world, there is an ever-increasing amount of information to be consumed in print and digitally. Studying ELA provides Hawaii’s students with the ability to:
- attentively and critically make sense of information
- engage thoughtfully and deeply with high-quality literary and informational texts
- build knowledge and expand their view of the world through their engagement with multiple texts
- create and effectively share new ideas
- participate in our democratic society.
- find and use their voice with clarity and confidence.
In our unique island home, we are guided by shared values and beliefs expressed in the learning outcomes of Nā Hopena Aʻo (HĀ). These values and beliefs are also reflected in a strong ELA program. As students read and talk about other places and cultures as well as their own they strengthen their sense of belonging and responsibility. As students work on revising and editing their work for publication they strengthen their sense of excellence.
Students in ELA classroom read texts assigned by their teachers and those that interest or inspire them. While it is critical to provide students with support in closely reading complex texts and shared texts, it is also vital for students to have a choice in reading materials that interest and engage them. This is why both close reading and wide reading are essential parts of the ELA program.
ELA teachers focus on their content with particular attention to and care for the whole child. High quality standards-based instruction in ELA is critical for ensuring success in college and careers however it will only fulfill its potential in classrooms where students feel safe, healthy, supported, challenged and engaged. (Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, June 2, 2010.)
Core Principles of ELA
Although the Hawaiʻi Core Standards for English Language Arts address reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language in different sections to aid in conceptual clarity, an integrated model of literacy is recommended as the processes of communication are intimately connected.
The Hawaiian Language Arts Standards for students in Hawaiian Immersion programs also address Hawaiian Language in an integrated model of literacy. Students write and discuss what they read as well as share findings from their research verbally and through their writing. ELA begins with the building of foundational reading skills, the bedrock from which the ability to read, write and speak grows. Without this foundation, students enter their schooling years at a profound disadvantage the legacy of which unfortunately stays with them throughout their schooling and into adulthood. (Fletcher & Lyon, 1998) The maxim that students must learn to read at grade level by third grade should not be misinterpreted to mean that learning to read complex text critically and closely is a job solely left to our early elementary teachers. The “Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals About College Readiness in Reading” (ACT, 2006) showed that what chiefly distinguished the performance of students on the ACT was not critical thinking skills or higher order reasoning but rather what the students could read in terms of text complexity. This finding as well as an examination of how other prosperous countries organize their expectations in ELA has led to the Common Core Standards’ explicit inclusion of the expectation that students read increasingly complex texts as they progress through the grade levels. The Common Core has a three-part model for measuring text complexity, and specific guidance related to the quantitative analysis of text provided in the Common Core Supplemental Information to Appendix A which identifies a Lexile level of 1385 as being an approximate target for students finishing grade 12 and moving onto college or the workplace.
As students read increasingly complex texts, they also research and write about increasingly substantive topics. Much of the writing they are doing connects to the texts they are reading. There are three text types identified in Hawaii’s Core Standards for ELA, Narrative, Informational Explanatory and Argumentative. As teachers support students with writing across these various text types, they should provide a balance of direct instruction and practice. Too often students are merely assigned writing without receiving clear instruction. A gradual release of responsibility that incorporates model texts, guided practice, transparent criteria and structures for peer and teacher feedback are necessary as students strengthen their ability to express their written ideas in multiple formats including but not limited to traditional essays, blogs, websites, podcasts, and multimedia presentations. Students gradually take an increasingly larger role in reflecting on and leading their own learning.
Speaking and Listening
ELA classrooms also have a fundamental role in helping students develop their oral language skills. In a paper on Work-Based Learning in Hawai‘i Study (Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, 2016), communication was identified by Hawai‘i employers as a key desirable workforce skill. Often workplace communication comes in the form of being able to have productive conversations with diverse members of a team to solve specific problems. As students read and write about the complex text, it is incredibly important for them to also spend a considerable amount of time in collaborative conversations with their peers. At the earliest level, this is even more important for our students who are English learners or come from homes where there is no exposure to the kind of language found in texts. Children’s listening comprehension outpaces their reading comprehension often into the middle grades. Oral language must be developed and refined at all levels so each student has the opportunity to express themselves.
Knowledge of conventions, knowledge of language and vocabulary extend across and are inseparable from reading, writing, speaking and listening.
Where is ELA Headed?
Hawaiʻi’s Common Core Standards for ELA include three major shifts that help explain how these new standards are different from previous ELA Standards.
Regular practice with complex texts and their academic language.
Traditionally the focus of ELA has been largely on the skills associated with reading. Hawaiʻi’s Core Standards are clear that it is at least equally important to ensure students can read increasingly complex texts. As students engage in a productive and supported struggle with complex texts, they should be helped to adopt a growth mindset, understanding that continued practice yields growth in ability. Hand in hand with a progression of text complexity is the focus on building student’s academic language. Academic language refers to the words that appear in a variety of contexts across subject areas and learning these words supports students’ success. For English learners and any striving student providing support with academic vocabulary development is critical. It is important to scaffold vocabulary development by having a language-rich environment with multimodal representations for key terms and concepts (anchor charts, word walls, labels etc). Scaffolding and practice which includes directly teaching target vocabulary connected to the literature and the standards, connecting to culture, background, experiences; using visuals, gestures, realia, graphics support, providing context and real-life examples will greatly support all students especially English learners.
Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational.
In a traditional ELA classroom before the Common Core, many of the text discussion questions were not text-specific, meaning a student did not have to read and comprehend a text to respond to the majority of the writing prompts and discussion questions. The Common Core has put a premium on writing about and discussing questions that require a close and careful reading of the text. This shift is a vital equity issue since questions that are not text dependent often rely on students’ out of classroom background information which can be limiting for some students. In a Common Core-aligned classroom students read, discuss and write about texts.
Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.
The “Baseball Study” done by Recht and Leslie showed the tremendous influence a student’s prior knowledge about a subject has on his/her ability to read and comprehend texts on that same subject. (Recht & Leslie, 1988) Given the findings of this research, a central way for students to read increasingly complex texts is by building their knowledge. Knowledge of a topic is built as students read and discuss a set of texts related to a particular subject. (Cervetti et al., 2016) Many resources supporting the Common Core State Standards have focused on building these text sets. These text sets often include visual text, videos and written texts.
The emphasis on building knowledge highlights the opportunity to integrate reading, writing, speaking and listening with other content areas. Elementary schools may, for example be thematically organized around important ideas or concept from science or social studies. They may spend time investigating essential questions related to the concept and the reading, writing, speaking and listening they do should connect to that idea or concept. Students will also greatly benefit from having place-based experiences where they strengthen their knowledge about topics in a place-based context. Because building knowledge is so critically important to reading complex texts it does students a direct disservice to replace knowledge-building opportunities in areas such as science and social studies with more time for English language arts. This is a misconception because building knowledge in content areas is important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is likely to have a direct correlation to increased ability to read complex texts. Reading, writing, speaking and listening are an integral part of learning in every subject area and should happen throughout the student’s school day. Secondary students in ELA read literature and literary nonfiction as well as informational texts. Students in other content areas participate in the types of reading and writing that are fundamental and often unique to those content areas, also known as Disciplinary literacy.
ELA: Beginning Reading
Why beginning reading?
The overall goal of beginning reading is to ensure all children learn to read well by the end of grade 3. Efforts begin in preschool where a student’s readiness for Kindergarten is defined by the Hawaiʻi Early Learning and Development Standards (HELDS) which are research-based standards that identify the knowledge and behavior expectations.
Learning to read is an educational goal as well as an equity issue. Children who do not learn to read well by grade 3 are at a disadvantage as the demands upon their reading skills become exponentially greater after that grade. Their beginning reading skills must be developed even before they come to school so they can engage in complex tasks in the later grades and to strengthen every child’s sense of excellence and total well-being.
Reading is a complex system of deriving meaning from print. To learn to read well, children – especially those in the early grades and struggling readers – must:
- develop and maintain motivation to read;
- have sufficient background information and vocabulary to foster comprehension;
- understand how phonemes, or speech sounds, are connected to print;
- have the ability to decode unfamiliar words;
- be able to read fluently; and
- develop appropriate active strategies to construct meaning from print.
Core Principles of Beginning Reading: Learning to Read
The goals of teaching all children to read and preventing reading difficulties appear closer to reality than at any point in educational history.
The rich and robust consensual evidentiary knowledge base provides “a compass and a sense of direction” (Walker et al.,1998) for schools to use to address the monumental task they have in designing the optimal learning environment where all children read by the end of third grade.
The National Reading Panel (2000) identified the five big ideas in reading that provide a solid scientific footing regarding the elements and features of an effective reading curriculum. The dimensions of phonological awareness, alphabetic understanding, automaticity/fluency with the code, vocabulary development, and text comprehension all serve as the framework for scientifically based beginning reading instruction.
Motivation is also crucial in reading. These big ideas in reading are reflected in the Hawaiʻi Board of Education policy 102-2: K-12 Literacy.
Phonological awareness refers to the conscious understanding and knowledge that language is made up of sounds. Most important is phonemic awareness, the insight that words consist of separate sounds or phonemes, and the subsequent ability to manipulate these individual units (Adams, 1990).
In phonological awareness instruction, students do not see any written words or letters, but instead listen and respond to what they hear. Statistical analysis of students’ performance on phonemic awareness tasks identified two critical clusters of skills (Torgesen, Wagner, and Rashnotte. 1994): synthesis and analysis. Synthesis involves orally blending individual phonemes to make a word (blending). An analysis is the inverse task, orally segmenting a word into individual phonemes (Segmentation).
The Alphabetic principle, often referred to as alphabetic understanding, establishes a clear link between a letter and a sound and involves mapping of print to speech. It requires a reader to understand that the letters of our alphabet (i.e., graphemes) correspond to discrete sounds (i.e., phonemes).
To read words, a reader must see a word and access its meaning in memory. To get from the word to its meaning, beginning readers must apply the alphabetic principle by (a) sequentially translate the letters in a word to its sound, (b) remember the correct sequence of sounds, (c) blend the sounds together, and (d) search their memory for a real word that matches the string of sounds. Advanced readers must also recognize complex letter combinations and patterns.
Automaticity/Fluency with the Code
The definition of fluency is reading accurately, at a rate appropriate to the text, and with proper expression (Rasinski, 2004). Fluent reading is critical as it facilitates reading comprehension by allowing readers to focus their attention on the author’s message rather than on how to say the words (Rasinski, Reutzel, Chard, & Linon-Thompson, 2011).
There are many instructional strategies for increasing automaticity and fluency. Students can practice identifying letter and words from lists and engage in repeated readings of familiar texts. Guided reading oral reading strategies are well researched and practical approaches for increasing reading fluency.
One of the foundations in comprehending text is the knowledge of word meaning. The scientific research on vocabulary instruction reveals that:
- most vocabulary is learned indirectly through everyday experiences, and
- some vocabulary must be taught directly, especially for difficult words that are not part of the reader’s everyday experiences.
Comprehending text improves with instruction that helps readers use specific comprehension strategies. Strategies are conscious plans that readers use to make sense of the text. The goal of strategy instruction is to help students become purposeful, active readers who are in control of their reading comprehension.
Motivation to Read
As in every domain of learning, motivation is fundamental. A primary strategy to improve the likelihood that children will remain motivated is early reading success (Juel, 1988).
A primary mechanism to increase motivation is an early identification and intervention system to prevent the entrenchment of early literacy difficulties (Foorman et al., 1998). Explicit instruction in reading is a significant prevention strategy.
Students’ interests in reading can be addressed through literate environments, and by providing diverse literacy activities and engaging instruction. Wide range and types of books and writing materials should fill every classroom.
Where is Beginning Reading Headed?
The focus on the big ideas in reading and motivation can bring about a lasting difference in the lives of all- not some, or most- children (Kame’enui, 1998). This focus involves teachers collaborating on the design of a curriculum, including a structured phonics program and high-quality instructional practices that ensure all students are successful.
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